Prosecutors question Egyptian culture minister over van Gogh theft

Monday, August 30, 2010

Egyptian minister questioned in van Gogh theft

CAIRO — Egyptian prosecutors questioned the culture minister for three hours over the theft of a Vincent van Gogh painting that has put him on the defensive over the state of museum security around the country.

Farouk Hosni said he sought in Sunday night’s session to dispel accusations he failed to respond adequately to calls for increased security at Egyptian museums, including the one from where the van Gogh was stolen.

No alarms and only seven of 43 security cameras were working at Cairo’s Mahmoud Khalil Museum when the $50 million painting, known titles of “Poppy Flowers” and “Vase with Flowers,” was stolen in the middle of the day on Aug. 21.

Hosni does not face formal accusations in the case, but one of his senior deputies, Mohsen Shalaan, was arrested last week along with four museum security guards on suspicion of negligence. That set off a war of words between Shalaan, the ministry’s top official in charge of fine arts, and Hosni.

“I volunteered my statement so I can defend my ministry against the accusations it faces and against all the accusations Shalaan has filled the newspapers with,” Hosni told reporters after meeting with prosecutors.

No one has been charged in the case, including the five people in custody.

In addition to the poor security, thieves took advantage of the moment when museum guards were praying.

Shalaan and a number of museum directors said they had asked the culture minister for nearly $7 million to upgrade security systems, including at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum, but that only $88,000 was approved.

According to a statement by the Mahmoud Khalil Museum’s director, Reem Bahir, Hosni knew about the dysfunctional cameras and alarm system but said there was no budget for upgrading them.

The independent newspaper Al-Shorouk reported the tourism and antiquities police had warned Hosni of lax security at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum and that 16 of the country’s nearly 50 museums have no alarms, cameras or appropriate fire safety systems.

Hosni said he told prosecutors he had delegated full responsibility for the museum to Shalaan. He also presented documents that showed a presidential decree approving just over $10 million to renovate the Mahmoud Khalil Museum.

Authorities have not made public any information about progress in the search for the painting or the thieves.

According to the Al-Wafd newspaper, one of the museum guards was able to describe a suspect for a police sketch on Sunday, which Shalaan drew and presented to prosecutors during questioning.

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