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Odyssey Marine Exploration: Spanish court shelves case against US treasure hunters that looted ‘Mercedes’ frigate | USA

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The history of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes includes two grievances and one victory. The first of the former was when the British Navy sunk it and its 275 crew members on October 5, 1804, off Portugal’s Algarve coast. The second offense came in May 2007, when the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration scooped up its cargo of 500,000 silver and gold coins from the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.

Triumph came when the US justice system confirmed that the treasure belonged to Spain, in a ruling released in February 2012. But there was one more affront to come: a Spanish court has just definitively shelved a case into alleged crimes committed by the US treasure hunters as they were removing the coins. After a tortuous 14-year investigation, a courtroom in Cádiz has been left with no option but to let the probe die, albeit admitting its “bafflement” and “anger” over what it considers “unusual proceedings.”

At the same time as the legal process began in Florida to determine who was the rightful owner of the rescued treasure, Odyssey or Spain, a court in La Línea de la Concepción, in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, began investigating whether the then-CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm, and his team had committed any criminal offenses when they removed the haul from the shipwreck. Among the potential crimes were damaging an archeological site and smuggling.

Odyssey workers hoisting a cannon from the 'HMS Victory' shipwreck in 2009.
Odyssey workers hoisting a cannon from the ‘HMS Victory’ shipwreck in 2009.

The fact that the 500,000 pieces of silver and gold were returned to Spain in February 2012 – nearly 17 tons of material, which are now held in the ARQUA underwater archeology museum in Cartagena – is proof that the legal battle in the United States ended well for Spain. But the latest decision in the Spanish case, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves no doubt that the investigation into potential crimes has definitively been shipwrecked.

The three judges who were responsible for the case found that the shelving, which cannot be appealed, is based principally on the fact that the potential offenses have now exceeded the statute of limitations in Spain for trial. And the slow process of the probe, according to the judges’ writ, was due to the failure of the US justice system to respond to the letters rogatory sent in 2013, and that were needed if Stemm and the rest of the suspects were to be questioned by investigators.

“In terms of the lawsuit over the coins, the United States was on Spain’s side,” explains Ángel Núñez, a public prosecutor who specializes in cultural heritage and who was in charge of the case until 2009. “But it is true that when it comes to targeting one of their own nationals, they are not so willing to collaborate. And given that these were US citizens who are not at the disposal of the Spanish courts…”

The Spanish court probe into Odyssey had already entered into a tailspin before this latest ruling. In December 2016, another judge in La Línea dismissed the case. The private prosecution, which was brought by the company Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, appealed the decision but it was rejected. In a new attempt to not let the legal process die, archeologist Javier Noriega, one of the heads of this small company based in Málaga, took the case to the High Court of Cádiz province, in La Línea, the one that has definitively shelved the proceedings.

In their ruling, the judges add that they share “with the appellant his surprise, confusion and even anger for the, shall we call it, unusual proceedings with this case, at least since the year 2013.” The magistrates do not go so far as to specify what prompted them to feel this way.

Spanish Civil Guard officers watching the "Ocean Alert," a vessel owned by Odyssey Marine Explorations, near Gibraltar in 2007.
Spanish Civil Guard officers watching the “Ocean Alert,” a vessel owned by Odyssey Marine Explorations, near Gibraltar in 2007.ANTON MERES (REUTERS)

Archeologist Javier Noriega believes that he knows all too well what they are referring to. He and his colleagues decided to take up the case – represented by the attorney José María Lancho – as a “professional and moral obligation.” They have since seen how “all of these years can be summed up by the end: exceeding the statute of limitations.” “They avoided entering into the substance of what happened to Spain’s cultural heritage,” the expert complains.

These unusual proceedings in the investigation which the judges mention and that Noriega suffered first-hand were reported on in the Spanish press. In March 2012, a former legal representative for Odyssey, with no authority, entered the courtroom when the judge was absent and persuaded court workers to photocopy the entire findings of the legal investigation so far, as was reported by the Spanish daily Abc at the time. According to Abc, such an action would have allowed Odyssey to prepare a defense against the findings of Civil Guard investigators and decide whether or not to actually take part in the trial.

The actions of the representative were very serious, taking into account that the probe was counting on a protected witness: a diver who had been threatened for having denounced Odyssey, given that he had knowledge of some of its activities in Spanish waters.

Now Noriega, 46, is gloomy about the end of a process that has occupied a significant part of his career. “As people who love our profession, it’s frustrating,” he explains. “It ends up being a defeat for all of us, for culture and for society. And if as well as that, the person responsible has gone unpunished, because of the statute of limitations, that’s very sad.”

Despite the legal setback, the archeologist argues that the court probe contains “evidence of all kinds, archeological, from witnesses, technical, juridical, and a ton of resounding questions that deal with what supposedly happened with an overwhelming truthfulness.”

The expert believes that an opportunity has been missed by Europe to convey “a clear message to the thieves who have spent years destroying the history of those shipwrecks from the modern era all over the world.”

Odyssey Marine Exploration never had any interest in the Spanish frigate beyond the cargo of silver and gold that it was carrying. That was made clear by the destruction caused by the company in the archeological area where the remains of the 275 people killed in the attack in 1804 lay. “When an archeological site is plundered, it is destroyed forever,” states Noriega.

After the site was looted, ARQUA led a scientific excavation that was carried out in three campaigns – from 2015 to 2017 – in which the remains of the shipwreck were documented and the items that the treasure hunters left behind were removed. These included cannon, cutlery and other everyday objects from life on board. The expedition also achieved the challenge of descending 1,130 meters underwater, the maximum depth achieved until that point during a subaquatic arqueological mission by a European country.

While the damage done to a historical site such as the Mercedes shipwreck will not result in a trial or convictions, Núñez believes that the consequences of the process “were positive, from a legal and global point of view.” Noriega goes even further: “Spain and its coasts are, today, possibly the best protected and safest in the world with regard to the protection of cultural heritage against looting.”

Since the Odyssey case, the classification of offenses against historical heritage in Spain has improved, new archeological maps have been created, there is better coordination between administrations, and there is greater social awareness about this kind of offense. It was precisely these weaknesses that the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made use of to make off with the coins. In fact, the activity has presumably lost its appeal not just in Spain but also elsewhere, given that the American company has since abandoned its treasure-hunting activities and is now focusing on underground mining.



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Lives lost at Europe’s borders and Afghan MPs in exile: human rights this fortnight – in pictures

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A roundup of the struggle for human rights and freedoms, from Mexico to Manila

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Belgium tightens Covid rules as health system ‘is cracking’

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Belgium has introduced new measures to curb the surge of Covid-19 infections in the country, following the third emergency meeting of federal and regional governments in three weeks.

“The autumn wave is much heavier than was estimated,” Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said on Friday (3 December).

“The infection rates are among the highest in Europe and the pressure in healthcare has become unsustainable,” he also said, arguing that new measures are necessary because “the system is cracking”.

One item on the agenda that proved to be divisive was the closure of schools – a move supported by experts and the federal government but opposed by regional governments.

Belgium’s so-called concertation committee of federal and regional governments finally decided to keep schools open, but it impose a longer, three-week, Christmas holiday for primary and pre-primary education. The holiday will now run from 20 December to 10 January.

According to Flemish prime minister Jan Jambon, this extra week will be used to administer the booster shot to the teachers.

And until the school holiday, a class will go until quarantine after two cases of Covid-19 are detected (previously three cases). Additionally, all extracurricular activities will be barred.

Children from the age of six upwards will also have to wear a face mask at school and all other places where its use is compulsory. And parents have been advised to test their children regularly.

For this coming weekend, indoor events with more than 4,000 attendees will be cancelled. From Monday, this will apply to all with more than 200 attendees.

Events with fewer than 200 people inside will still be allowed under the current criteria – that everyone needs to have a corona pass, be seated and wear a face mask.

Museums and cinemas would remain open, but with a capacity limit of 200 people per room.

The committee also decided that restaurants and bars can continue to remain open until 11PM, as it is currently the case – although experts had asked to close them at 8PM.

This new package of measures has already been criticised by representatives of the cultural sector, who argued that the restrictions do not target the source of the problem.

“Instead of fighting the virus, we are fighting culture. Bars open, but culture [events] only 200 people. Who are we fooling?,” said Michael De Cock, director of the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg [Royal Flemish Theatre].

There is also no restrictions for private social life in the so-called “contact bubbles” – despite this also being recommended it by experts. Nevertheless, there is a recommendation to limit contacts as much as possible.

At work, there are no new measures, as the committee previously announced that teleworking is mandatory at least four days a week.

Intensive-care cases expected to peak next week

An average of 318 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised each day in Belgium this week – which represents an increase of four percent compared with the previous week.

There are currently 3,707 people hospitalised in the country, of which 821 are in intensive care.

“Although the number of infections is very high, the number of deaths in our country is lower than in comparable countries, and that is due to the high vaccination coverage,” said de Croo.

“Getting vaccinated is an act of solidarity,” he added.

More than 75 percent of the Belgian population is fully-vaccinated, and over a million people have received a booster shot.

For his part, Belgian virologist Steven Van Gucht said on Friday that the number of Covid-19 patients on the intensive care units of the country’s hospitals are expected to peak next week.

“It is unclear whether we can then expect a rapid fall or whether the figures will remain at that high level,” he also said, according to VRT news.

The highest number of new Covid-19 infections (25,574) during this fourth wave was recorded on Monday 22 November.

But new measures will make coronavirus figures fall more quickly, relieving the pressure on the health care sector, Van Gucht said.

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India’s ‘pencil village’ counts the cost of Covid school closures | Global development

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School closures in India during the pandemic have left their mark on more than the children who have seen delays to their learning. In one Kashmiri village the impact has been catastrophic on employment.

Pick up a pencil anywhere across India and it is likely to come from the poplar trees of Ukhoo.

This village, with an abundance of trees, about 10 miles south of Srinagar city in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, supplies more than 90% of the wood used by India’s pencil manufacturers, which export to more than 150 countries.

Before Covid, more than 2,500 people worked in the village’s 17 pencil factories and the industry supported about 250 families.

But, after nearly two years of school closures and a dramatic drop in demand for the village’s products, factory owners reduced their workforce by more than half.

Workers were dismissed without pay, while many of those who kept their jobs had migrated from other parts of India, and were cheaper to employ. Now the village and its workforce are waiting eagerly for the market to revive.

Rajesh Kumar, 26, from Bihar, has worked in Ukhoo for seven years. Like other migrant workers, he lives in a room on the factory premises and works 10- to 12-hour shifts. During lockdown last year, the factory owner provided food and accommodation when production shutdown for about three months. He is one of the luckier ones to be back working now.

“I hope the pencil demand increases and these factories are full of workers again, as many of our friends and people from our villages find work [here] and are able to make a living,” says Kumar.

Poplar logs outside a pencil slate factory, Ukhoo
Factory owners have had to lay off half of their workers during the pandemic. Photograph: Adil Abbas

Farooq Ahmed Wani, 27, from the city of Jammu, has worked as a machine operator in Ukhoo for the past five years.

“We are hoping that schools reopen throughout the country so that there is more demand for pencils in the market,” he says in an optimistic tone. “Then these factories can employ more young people and more migrants can also get some work here.”

Pencil wala Gaon, or “pencil village”, attracted the attention of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. In his monthly radio programme, Mann Ki Baat, last year he said the district was an example of how to reduce the country’s dependency on imports. “Once upon a time we used to import wood for pencils from abroad but now our Pulwama is making the country self-sufficient in the field of pencil making,” Modi said.

90% of the wood used in pencils manufactured in India comes from Ukhoo.
Ukhoo supplies 90% of the wood used in pencils manufactured in India. Photograph: Vincent Lecomte/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

A recent ministry of home affairs report said that the village would be developed as a “special zone” for manufacturing. “Now the whole country would be supplied finished pencils, manufactured completely in Pulwama,” the report noted. But the pandemic has shown how overreliance on one product in a region brings its own problems.

A migrant worker trims a plank of poplar wood at a pencil slate factory
A migrant worker trims timber at a pencil factory. The factories attract workers from several states. Photograph: Adil Abbas

Abrar Ahmed, a unit supervisor at one of Ukhoo’s factories, says everyone has suffered. “Even the sawdust from woodcutting machines is usually taken by the local villagers who then sell it to poultry farms and for other purposes in the village.”

Manzoor Ahmad Allaie owns one of the biggest factories in Ukhoo.

“We are only doing about 30% to 40% [of normal levels of] business now because of the Covid lockdown impact from last year, which means we produce about only 80 bags of pencil slats a day,” says Allaie. “Earlier we could produce about 300 pencil slat bags [a day] in the factory, which were transported out of Kashmir.”

He is eagerly looking forward to India’s schools fully reopening. It has been a hard two years for the pencil villagers, he says.

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