Archive for Thursday, April 24, 2003

Iraqi artworks seized from reporters

April 24, 2003

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Homeland Security agents said Wednesday they had seized 15 paintings, a collection of gold-plated guns and knives and assorted other weapons and artworks looted from Baghdad and brought into the United States. In four out of five cases, the smuggling involved journalists.

On Tuesday, agents charged Fox News Channel technician Benjamin J. Johnson, 27, of Alexandria, Va., with one count of smuggling for allegedly bringing 12 paintings and a quantity of Iraqi monetary bonds into Dulles International Airport. The charge could result in as much as five years in jail and $250,000 in fines.

Johnson's attorney, Christopher Amolsch, would not say how Johnson would plead but added: "Mr. Johnson has admitted he took the paintings. It was an incredibly bad decision and showed poor judgment."

Fox News Channel issued a statement saying Johnson had been fired.

Agents detained a Boston Herald reporter at Logan International Airport this past Saturday and seized a painting, a wall decoration and other items. Boston Herald publisher Patrick Purcell issued a statement of support identifying the reporter as Jules Crittenden and saying he had fully cooperated with authorities. Crittenden has not been charged with a crime.

Agents from the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement gave no details of the other cases implicating journalists. The fifth case, a shipment of gold-plated and ornamental weapons seized at Fort Stewart, in Ga., appeared to involve a member of the U.S. armed forces.

None of the garish paintings -- which included a portrait of Odai, Saddam Hussein's eldest son, and a portrait of Saddam himself -- had any intrinsic value as works of art, and none of the recovered items were from the National Museum of Antiquities, where looters plundered thousands of priceless artifacts dating from the earliest days of civilization.

"We may differ on what art is," said Jayson Ahern, assistant commissioner for Homeland Security's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. "But this is stealing; this is theft; this must be stopped."

Johnson, described by Fox as a satellite truck engineer, was first stopped by Customs agents at Dulles when he declared $20 worth of cigarettes on his arrival from London on April 17. Sent to a secondary inspection station to pay duty, he appeared nervous, and his hand was shaking, the criminal complaint filed in federal court said.

Asked whether he wanted to change his declaration, Johnson replied no, the complaint said. He also denied he was carrying gifts or money. Inside Johnson's luggage, however, the inspectors found two chemical protective suits, a gas mask and a sheaf of Iraqi monetary bonds.

Inspectors then noticed that Johnson had a large cardboard box that was filled with paintings, the complaint said.

"Johnson stepped back and proceeded to sweat profusely," the complaint added. Asked where he had obtained the paintings, Johnson said that Iraqi citizens had approached him on the street and handed them to him. But under questioning, the complaint continued, Johnson said he had picked up several paintings from a ballroom in a building he described as "the New Presidential Palace," and the rest from Odai Hussein's palace.

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