Thursday, December 29, 2005

 

First ever prosecution for alleged underwater thieves

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Malta Today
By Karl Schembri
December 25, 2005


The police have filed charges against six expert divers accusing them of stealing and destroying priceless underwater heritage from Maltese territorial waters, in the first ever case of marine heritage pilfering to end up in a Maltese court. The accused face a maximum six years imprisonment sentence and a fine of between Lm500 and Lm50,000.

The case is expected to start being heard in January following months of wide-ranging investigations by the police Cultural Heritage Crimes Unit and the superintendence of cultural heritage, as revealed by MaltaToday last September when the first suspects were arrested following raids on private collectors and a scuba diving school.

The suspects, who include two foreigners, stand accused of looting heritage items from Malta’s seabed, some of them dating back to the Roman period.

They are also charged with holding illegal exploration for national heritage which would require a special licence, illegally removing the discovered artefacts without a permit from the heritage authorities, failing to report their discoveries to the authorities, and damaging and destroying heritage items.

Their arrests earlier this year had sent shockwaves among the diving community used to “taking souvenirs” from deepwater wrecks, although the accused were notorious among divers for their unrestrained looting for business. The items seized by investigators that will be presented as evidence in court include ancient amphoras, cannonballs from the period of the Knights of St John, and priceless artefacts pilfered from a World War I shipwreck off St Thomas Bay – the 153-metre ship SS Polynésien known as one of the greatest shipwrecks in the world.

Among diving circles, it is also known as “the plate ship” because of the impressive number of fine porcelain plates, brass lanterns, period decorations and furnishings buried on the wreck, together with, it is believed, priceless sealed champagne bottles dating back to the WWI period.

MaltaToday’s coverage of the arrests had also triggered a petition to the culture minister signed by more than 500 bona fide scuba divers and concerned citizens, calling for an amnesty to collectors who present their underwater artefacts to the authorities.

“The aim of this petition is to protect the artefacts which over the past years have been salvaged from the seabed and now form part of private collections,” the petition read. “The diving community is now aware that investigations are underway and there is the risk that some antiquities and artefacts may even be destroyed intentionally by their possessor in an effort to avoid being prosecuted.”

The minister, Francis Zammit Dimech, however remained noncommittal when asked for his position.


Deep underwater, expert divers have plundered our little Titanic
Lying deep underwater off St Thomas Bay, the wreck SS Polynésien is considered “Malta’s best kept secret” according to international wreck diving experts. But what has been happening upon the slick French ship also known as “the little Titanic” for the last decade amounts to omertà – criminal reticence.

Since it was sunk by a UC22 U-boat on 10 August 1918 while sailing in convoy towards Malta, the Polynésien has hidden priceless treasures for almost one hundred years, buried up to 70 metres under the sea, where only experienced scuba divers can reach.

The wreck is no site for amateurs. According to sources in the diving circles, it takes around an hour and a half of decompression, staggered on the way back up to the surface, for around 20 minutes of so-called technical deep diving at those depths.

It takes much more than 20 minutes to explore the entire 157-metre ship, and for the expert divers to reach the thousands of serving platters, ceiling fans and other artefacts inside.

And among these diving experts, groups of ruthless robbers have been looting these artefacts and others even older found in diverse diving sites around Malta, on paper protected by the Cultural Heritage Act as national treasures but effectively vulnerable to human predators armed with goggles and cylinders.

The rampant deep underwater robbery is believed to have been going on totally undeterred for the last six years, according to diving instructors who insisted on remaining anonymous. Individual divers, mostly unaware of the crime they are committing, just feel “they have to take a souvenir” back with them after almost risking their lives to reach the wreck.

Others, in organised groups, have systematically despoiled the ship of her beautiful, and profitable, treasures.

Now, tipped by sources in the diving circles, the police have investigated some of the most notorious of technical divers on the islands, Maltese and foreigners, and the findings are expected to lead to the first arraignments ever in court of underwater criminal rings. “It’s about time something is done about it,” an experienced diver said. “I’m happy the police is clamping down on this rampant illegal activity. It’s disgusting how some divers are robbing everything there is under the sea.”

The world’s biggest museum lies under the sea, cultural heritage experts say, but the possibility of the illicit international trading of a great part of this heritage makes its full recovery next to impossible. Also, with the police force’s resources, it is next to impossible to monitor diving sites.

Just the Polynésien is known to have sunk with ceramic jars, plates and cups made by Menun of France, dated 1900 on their inscriptions, together with other splendid ceramics by the prestigious Limoges factory.

The holds of the ship were known to contain a cargo of boots, car tires, fire bricks, brass beds, sealed champagne and wine bottles and a number of glass bottles dated 1900 from the Anglo-Egyptian Aerated Water Co. of Port Said – all vied-for collectibles on the clandestine antiques global market.

The ship is testimony to Malta’s vital role during World War One, when the Polynésien was used by the French Navy as an armed troop transport vessel after more than 20 years of civilian service accommodating 172 first, 71 second and 109 third and 234 steerage-class passengers at one go.

Her last, fatal movements on a hot August morning of 1918, are recorded in a Royal Navy inquiry, which found that a clearly negligent chief of staff posted here failed to act on early warning signs given to him by a Royal Navy officer stationed in Malta, who heard ‘suspicious engine sounds’ through the Delimara listening station.

Just as she was heading inshore, an enemy submarine fired its torpedoes towards the Polynésien, slipping through undetected as the ship started sinking.

All the crew escaped from the sinking ship unharmed, with the captain, in true naval tradition, boarding off the little Titanic as the last man.

Writing on the specialist journal, SportDiver in February 2004, wreck expert Ned Middleton revealed the secrets of the Polynésien for the first time on the British press, possibly exposing it even further to unscrupulous underwater treasure hunters from around the world.

Middleton wrote the ship “is such an outstanding wreck, I am at a loss to know why I have not read about her existence time and again long before now. Maybe I missed something, but I have been unable to find anything published about this shipwreck at all.”

After just one single dive “on this most incredible vessel”, it was immediately clear to Middleton “that this is one of the world’s top wreck dives. Oh yes, I mean it, she is easily that – and yet divers seem oblivious to her existence”.

Not the stealing ones, it seems. According to the Cultural Heritage Act, “the right of access to, and benefit from, the cultural heritage does not belong merely to the present generation. Every generation shall have the duty to protect this heritage and to make it accessible for future generations and for all mankind”. But for a generation of ruffian divers, this is just an adventurous, lucrative business.


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www.dofundodomar.blogspot.com

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