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How looted treasure helped heritage protection in Spain: The side benefits of the ‘Odyssey case’ | USA

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On stormy days, the Underwater Archeology Center (CAS) in Spain’s southern city of Cádiz is reminiscent of an early 20th-century ship at the mercy of the waves. The windows of this former spa overlooking La Caleta beach creak in the wind, and the rough seas are a reminder of the tragedies of bygone days.

Just in the area within eyesight, there are 87 sunken shipwrecks dating back to many different periods of time, 19 of which have been archeologically located while the rest are known about through existing documents. If the radius is extended to the entire gulf of Cádiz, the figure is closer to “around 2,000″ according to Milagros Alzaga, the head of CAS.

The well-publicized case of a US treasure hunting company named Odyssey that plundered one of these shipwrecks 14 years ago has had an unexpected benefit: Spain has since become a world leader in the legal protection of its underwater heritage. The effort is also creating new scientific challenges.

“We have become a role model and the world looks to us as a point of reference,” says Mariano Aznar, a professor of public international law and an expert on the subject. But reaching this status involved years of litigation in the US, where in February 2012 a Florida court recognized Spain’s ownership of 500,000 gold and silver coins taken by Odyssey from Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a frigate that was sunk by the British navy on October 5, 1804 off the southern coast of Portugal. The US company had named the recovery project Black Swan in an effort to conceal the wreck’s real identity.

Divers from the Andalusian Center for Underwater Archeology working in the bay of Cádiz.
Divers from the Andalusian Center for Underwater Archeology working in the bay of Cádiz.

However, a Spanish court was recently forced to drop an ongoing probe into Odyssey’s alleged destruction of the archeological site because the statute of limitations had passed; the court expressed “discomfiture” and “anger” at the unusual circumstances surrounding the legal procedures of the case, which required cooperation from the US that was not forthcoming.

“The case was a bit sad, but if you look at the positive side, it’s been a wake-up call for everyone,” says the head of CAS, which answers to the Andalusian Institute for Historical Heritage (IAPH).

The people in charge of Odyssey Marine Exploration, then headed by Greg Stemm, were aware of the ship’s history, which is linked to the Spanish-French defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. They were knowledgeable about the conflicts of power between the relevant institutions and about the existing legal loopholes in Spain.

“They took advantage of the administrative weaknesses,” says Aznar about Odyssey but also about another US company that used a ship named Louisa to scour the coast of Cádiz in 2004 in search of treasure.

Following two years of meetings and discussions, a volume published in the summer of 2010 under the name “Green Paper on the Underwater Heritage Protection Plan” eliminated a lot of this lack of coordination. “That plan provided support to regional governments, which lacked an underwater archeology map,” notes Alzaga.

On the legal front, the combined efforts triggered a wave of reinforced regulations. At the regional level, each government has “aligned even further” with the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. National maritime legislation has added a provision stating that salvage rules do not apply to submerged archeology. And the changes are not over yet: an amendment to the 1985 Spanish Historical Heritage Law announced in June will include the need for supervision from the Culture Ministry during any extraction of a cultural asset from the seabed.

The Naval Museum in Madrid organized an exhibition in 2014 that displayed part of the recovered treasure.
The Naval Museum in Madrid organized an exhibition in 2014 that displayed part of the recovered treasure. LUIS SEVILLANO

More awareness, fewer digs

This increased protection, coordination and knowledge has also permeated Spain’s law-enforcement agencies. The Navy now plays a much larger role, and the incorporation of the Integrated External Surveillance System – a network of cameras and sensors in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Canary Islands used to control immigration and drug trafficking – has shielded much of the Gulf of Cádiz, home to the greatest concentration of sunken wrecks in need of protection, against treasure-hunting pirates. “The professionalism these days is spectacular,” notes Aznar.

If the Odyssey case has been revived again in the collective imagination, it is not just because of the court probe that was recently closed in Spain, but also thanks to La Fortuna (or, The Fortune), a TV series by filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar based on The treasure of the Black Swan, a graphic novel by Paco Roca.

The Odyssey case also created more social awareness. Very few local divers dare plunder the sea bottom these days, and alert citizens often “call in if they see something strange,” notes Alzaga, of CAS. “People now view the underwater heritage as something that belongs to them and cannot be traded with.” But Aznar believes that more could be done to educate the public. “We need to show young people that [the seabed] is the biggest museum in the world. Maybe we can’t access it for economic and technological reasons, but a day will come when it will be possible. You can only love what you know, and at that point we will be able to force our political class to be more proactive.”

There is still room for improvement. The archeologist Javier Noriega, whose company Nerea won a EU award in 2009 for social responsibility, was part of the private prosecution in the case against Odyssey in Spain. Noriega admits he is disappointed with the things that happened during the investigation, but would rather focus on the future now through studies showing submerged sites as places of memory and war graves. Last week, Noriega defended this vision at Cyanis, a brand new Ibero-American congress on underwater heritage that was held in Cádiz.

Every shipwreck, whether caused by battles, raging seas or accidents, typically involves dozens of deaths. This is something that Odyssey did not take into account when it raided Nuestra Señora de la Mercedes “without shame or respect,” says Alzaga. This was one of Spain’s arguments at the Florida trial, and Aznar believes that it would have been a key argument in Spain if the second case had prospered. In any event, Noriega defends that underwater archeology should also incorporate this dimension as a way “to give people an identity, to reconstruct their stories.”

The head of CAS is familiar with that perspective. Construction work at the port of Cádiz in 2012 turned up three sunken ships from the 16th to 18th centuries. Alzaga was able to identify the Piccola Vassalla, the first ship sunk by Francis Drake in 1587, during his attack on the city. An exploration of the shipwrecks found remains of a woman’s skull and a man’s femur, and these are still being analyzed for clues about everyday life in the 16th century. The CAS has not carried out new surveys since then, although it has made documentation visits to sites.

Noriega defends the need for more underwater digs, particularly at the site of the wrecks of the Battle of Trafalgar, some of which are largely unknown to researchers. “We need to investigate, intervene, conserve and publish information about more wrecks in order to shed light on the stories of the people who died on them,” he says. For him, it would be almost an act of poetic justice following his disappointment over the shelving of the case against Odyssey. And ultimately it would be a way “for a problem to turn into an opportunity.”

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External investigation into Department ‘champagne party’ needed – Minister

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Minister of State Anne Rabbitte has called for an external investigation into a “champagne party” held by staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs staff in June 2020.

The gathering, which appeared to breach Covid-19 guidance in place at the time, was “inexcusable” and Minister Simon Coveney and his department have further questions to answer, the Fianna Fáil TD told Saturday with Katie Hannon on RTÉ Radio One.

“Having a champagne reception in any government department at that time, I know over in the Department of Health where they worked tirelessly for 23, 24 hours a day, it was far from champagne they were having,” she said.

Ms Rabbitte said an internal report conducted by the department’s current secretary general was not a satisfactory way to handle the matter.

“It’s still within the same department, and we know the answer we will get. I would be one for openness and transparency … it has to be [an external report].”

She added that all departments needed to learn from the mistake.

Officials were photographed in the department celebrating Ireland’s election onto the UN Security Council, and the image was posted on Twitter by the then secretary general Niall Burgess. The tweet was later deleted. At the time of the event, there were strict restrictions on the size of gatherings due to Covid-19.

Speaking on the same programme, Labour TD Duncan Smith said people were angered at the event because June 2020 was a bleak time for most people in Ireland. He said the public had seen other incidents where politicians and others were accused of breaching Covid-19 restrictions.

“These are the elites of society … what has really hurt people is that it really got to the ‘we are all in this together’ philosophy.”

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane agreed there needed to be an independent review of the matter, adding that Mr Coveney needed to come before an Oireachtas committee and the Dáil to gave a “frank and full account” of what happened.

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Dog-owners bite back at beach rules

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Following a series of reports that An Taisce is leading the battle to ban dogs from the State’s 83 blue-flag beaches, the organisation’s Ian Diamond is feeling misunderstood.

“I don’t hate dogs”, Mr Diamond says, pointing out that Blue Flag International – the global body which governs the coveted awards – warned last year that some qualifying beaches were not honouring long-standing rules.

Under what’s known as Criterion 23, the rules declare that beach access “by dogs and other domestic animals must be strictly controlled” and that they be allowed only in “the parking areas, walkways and promenades in the inland beach areas”.

Faced with the reminder, Mr Diamond said he requested last year that local authorities get more time, as it was “not something that can be introduced immediately in the middle of a pandemic when people are under other restrictions.

“You can’t exactly introduce these things overnight, so we were flagging that,” he said, adding that Blue Flag told them to speak to people seeking blue flag status and “come back with proposals” that comply with the rule.

The issue came to national attention following a meeting of Kerry County Council this week, though it was understood then that the rule was an An Taisce demand, rather than being a Blue Flag International obligation.

Dogs and horses

Consequently, Kerry County Council now propose that dogs or horses will not be allowed on blue-flag beaches from 11am-7pm between June 1st and September 15th, or otherwise the county could lose its 14 blue flags.

However, the restrictions are unpopular with some dog-owners: “There’s a lot more important things to be worrying about than dogs on a beach,” said David Walsh, as he walked his pet, Oreo, on Salthill beach.

Dog-owners in Salthill are already not allowed to bring their dogs onto the beach between 9am and 8pm between May 1st and September 30th each year, in line with Blue Flag International’s rules, though penalties are rare.

Mr Diamond says a national application of the rules at blue-flag beaches would not “strictly prohibit dogs being on the beach” during bathing season, outside of peak hours.

Bathing season

“The blue-flag criteria would apply from June 1st to September 15th, within peak usage hours, so bathing hours – that would be mid-morning to early evening,” said the An Taisce officer.

“What it requires is that there would be rules in place in relation to dogs that say [they] should not be in the blue-flag area within those hours and within the bathing season,” Mr Diamond said.

The restriction is based on public health grounds and dates back to 2003: “Dog faeces actually contain a lot of the micro-organisms that cause illness in the same way that human waste would,” he said.

“There’s no zero-tolerance approach to this. If rules are going to be brought in, then people will be consulted as well, you know, brought in unilaterally, and it’s down to the councils responsible for the beaches to bring those in.”

Not everyone disagrees with An Taisce, or Blue Flag: “I don’t think dogs should be on the beach, because of the kids and all that. And a lot of people don’t pick up their poo afterwards,” said a man on Salthill beach.

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Jail for banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on Christmas shopping trip to Belfast

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A banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on a Christmas shopping trip to Belfast has been jailed for seven months.

Police also discovered three of Leeanne McCarthy’s children not wearing seat belts when her car was stopped on the Westlink dual carriageway.

The 41-year-old mother-of-eight initially gave officers a false identity, prosecutors said.

Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard a PSNI patrol car stopped the Ford Focus on November 26th last year.

McCarthy, with an address at Clonlough in Limerick, provided a different name and claimed she did not have her licence with her.

However, checks revealed that a month earlier she had been banned from driving for five years.

A Crown lawyer said: “Three young children were in the rear of the vehicle, none of them wearing seat belts.”

McCarthy initially claimed they only removed the safety restraints when the car came to a halt, the court heard.

Police were told that she took over driving duties from another daughter who had been tired and nearly crashed the vehicle.

McCarthy was convicted of driving while disqualified, having no insurance, obstructing police and three counts of carrying a child in the rear of a vehicle without a seat belt.

Her barrister, Turlough Madden, said she had travelled to Belfast for Christmas shopping.

Counsel told the court McCarthy spent the festive period in custody, missing out on sharing it with her eight children and four grandchildren.

“That’s been a wake-up call and significant punishment for her,” Mr Madden submitted.

“She is a mother who simply wants to go back to Limerick and not return to Northern Ireland.”

Sentencing McCarthy to five months imprisonment for the new offences, District Judge George Conner imposed a further two months by activating a previous suspended term.

Mr Conner also affirmed the five-year disqualification period and fined her £300 (€350) for the seat belt charges.

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