Malta -- 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.
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