CAIRO: Egypt’s Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud extended the detention of Deputy Culture Minister Mohsen Shaalan and four employees at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum for 15 days in connection with the theft of the Vincent Van Gogh painting “Poppy Flowers.”
The five are investigated on suspicion of neglect and professional delinquency but no charges have been filed, according to the state-run Middle East News Agency (MENA).
Mahmoud says Shaalan is responsible for the security lapses that he said led to the theft because he has an office in the museum and is in charge of its financial and administrative affairs.
Shaalan "neglected his duties and didn’t improve lax security measures by replacing the broken cameras and alarms," Mahmoud said, according to MENA.
In a telephone interception to Mehwar TV’s daily talk show “90 Minutes” Monday night, Samir Sabri, Shaalan’s lawyer, said that Culture Minister Farouk Hosni should be taken to court as the top official responsible for the security negligence that led to the Van Gogh theft.
“Mohsen Shaalan had sent several correspondences and notices to the Ministry of Culture since 2007, notifying them of the security problems in the [Mahmoud Khalil] museum, and informing them that the cameras and alarms don’t work, but the ministry ignored his requests,” he explained.
“He [Shaalan] even told the Minister of Culture personally about the security problems in the museum in a meeting between the two. But the minister’s response was that it was more important to replace the old drapes for the sake of foreign visitors,” Sabri added.
Shaalan told the press that in 2007 he warned that cameras and alarms at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum were not working but that Hosni did not come through with resources to replace the equipment.
"I am not going to be a scapegoat for the minister," Shaalan said, according to Al-Youm Al-Sabei newspaper, adding that he will present evidence that the minister was aware of the failing security at the museum.
In a statement sent to the press Tuesday, Zahi Hawass, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said that the culture minister authorizes sector heads to develop their respective sectors including buildings, and cultural and art centers.
The guards were accused of neglect for not checking museum visitors and 10 other people were questioned and released Sunday but remain under investigation on similar accusations.
Van Gogh’s “Poppy Flowers” was sliced out of its frame with a box cutter on Saturday. The prosecutor general has blamed the poor security system at Mahmoud Khalil Museum for the theft of the $50-million-plus painting, describing it as “inadequate,” “superficial” and “feeble.”
“There are 43 security cameras but only seven are functioning. Each painting is protected by an alarm but again, none of them works,” Mahmoud told the press at the time.
Hawass said Tuesday that Egypt’s 23 open museums are well secured, using surveillance cameras, alarms and security guards.
He said the SCA had hired a company responsible for the maintenance and replacement of such security devices.
A central surveillance room is being set up to connect all such rooms in antiquities, historical and art museums, Hawass said.-Additional reporting by Heba Fahmy