CAIRO: The Dokki Misdemeanor Court adjourned the Van Gogh painting theft trial to Sept. 28. The main defendant, deputy culture minister Mohsen Shaalan, was to remain in custody and a number of officials were summoned to testify.
The judge summoned as witnesses the director general of art museums Rawya Al-Halawany; tourism police Brigadier Ahmed Abdel Zaher; and former director of Mahmoud Khalil Museum Salem Salah.
From the dock, Shaalan reiterated to reporters before the trial began that he was a “scapegoat” for the ministry.
“Why are all the museum officials who are directly responsible for this negligence including the director of the museum and the general manager outside prison while I am kept behind bars? It’s because they needed an important figure to be used as a scapegoat to calm the people,” he said.
The defense team called for the release of the detainees on grounds that there was no criminal offense in their charge sheet, merely administrative offenses.
Samir Sabri, lawyer representing Shaalan, called for the interrogation of Culture Minister Farouk Hosni in the presence of the defense lawyers. He also requested the interrogation of director of the ministry of culture’s office, Farouk Abdel Salam, and head of financial and administrative affairs, Olfat Al-Gindi.
“Nobody is above the law, including the Minister of Culture,” Sabri told Daily News Egypt.
Hosni gave a voluntary testimony to the prosecution early this month to respond to accusations against him and the ministry.
He said in his testimony that he had given Shaalan full financial and administrative responsibility of the Mahmoud Khalil Museum, where the theft of the $50-million-plus Van Gogh painting occurred, according to a 2006 decree. The minister denied ever knowing the museum’s lax security.
“He gave [Shaalan] the authority, but he didn’t provide the budget needed to improve the museum’s security system. And we will present documents to the court proving that,” Sabri said.
However, Essam Bassim, lawyer representing museum director Reem Baheer, said that Mohsen Shaalan was the main one responsible for the grave negligence that led to the Van Gogh theft.
“Reem Baheer’s post didn’t give her a lot of authority to improve the security system in the museum. That’s why Shaalan’s being detained while Baheer is not,” Bassim told Daily News Egypt.
“Ever since Baheer held her post in the museum in 2007, she sent letters to Mohsen Shaalan’s office, regarding the poor state of the museum including the cameras, the surveillance system. Even the metal detectors weren’t working. The response that came from Shaalan was that there was no budget to improve the security system.”
Nabih El-Wahsh, the lawyer representing museum security guard Mohamed Abdel Sabour, accused Shaalan of ordering the museum employees to stop keeping records of visitors’ names allegedly because it “annoyed” the foreigners. However, he criticized the fact that Shaalan was referred to a criminal court not to an administrative one.
“Even if Shaalan is responsible for the state of the museum, he should’ve been referred to a disciplinary court instead of a criminal court,” El-Wahsh told Daily News Egypt.
El-Wahsh called for the prosecution of Hosni and other museum officials not merely their interrogation.
“We want to re-open the investigation through the public prosecutor and we want the real criminals, which are Farouk Hosni and the director of the ministry of culture’s office, Farouk Abdel Salam, and head of financial and administrative affairs, Olfat Al-Gindy, to be prosecuted, because they are the main reasons behind the corruption of the ministry of culture,” El-Wahsh told the court.
The lawyers agreed that the security guards shouldn’t be prosecuted for negligence.
“Security guards get paid LE 250 a month. They are poor people who aren’t responsible for the theft and they shouldn’t be used as scapegoats,” Sabri told Daily News Egypt.
The “Poppy Flowers” painting was stolen in broad daylight from Mahmoud Khalil Museum on Aug. 21 using a box cutter to remove it from its frame, sparking wide criticism against the Ministry of Culture.
Poor security measures were blamed for the theft of the painting.
Only seven of 43 surveillance cameras in the museum were functioning and none of the alarms went off during the theft.