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Invaluable artefacts seized at Islamabad airport

Updated August 12, 2017
A Pakistani Customs staffer pictured with the seized artefacts on Friday. — Paper
A Pakistani Customs staffer pictured with the seized artefacts on Friday. — Paper

RAWALPINDI / KARACHI: The Air Freight Unit (AFU) of Pakistan Customs at Benazir Bhutto International Airport on Friday foiled an attempt to smuggle centuries-old and gold-plated statues of Buddha to Japan.

The unit also launched an investigation into the affairs of Customs officials at the Sialkot Dry Port.

Deputy Collector of Customs Shahid Jan told Dawn his department’s officials at the dry port would be asked to explain why they sent the consignment containing the contraband items to Islamabad for export.

“It is surprising that they didn’t export the consignment from Sialkot and [instead] sent it to Islamabad,” he said and added: “Customs officials will be booked, if found guilty.”

Mr Jan said the seizure was made in the light of a tip received by Customs Collector Dr Arsalan Subuktageen that a consignment bound for Japan — of exporter M/S B28 Traders, Sialkot, and clearing agent Leo’s Corporation, Sialkot — contained suspicious items.

The Customs personnel found the invaluable artefacts when they re-examined the consignment, said Dr Subuktageen.

The directorate-general of Archaeology and Museums, Islamabad, confirmed that some of the items recovered by Customs officials were indeed centuries-old artefacts, he said.

In a report, the directorate-general said that six of the items recovered were genuine Gandhara pieces, he said. However, ten others were counterfeits.

The export of such items was banned under Section 24(2) of Section 35 of the Antiquities Act, 1975, said Dr Subuktageen.

When contacted, Qasim Ali Qasim, a former director for Archaeology and Museums, said that smuggling of country’s artefacts to Europe and the Far East had been going on for decades. While artefacts from Mahergarh and Naal in Balochistan were smuggled mostly to Europe, the Gandhara artefacts were in demand both in Europe, where the laws were relatively strict, and the Far East, particularly Japan, South Korea and Thailand.

About 12 years ago, a Thai diplomat was caught trying to smuggle out Gandhara artefacts from Islamabad, Mr Qasim said.

Smugglers now are increasingly using fresh routes, taking the artefacts to Dubai, which is a free port. From there the items were sent to their final destinations, he added.

“The value of statues of Buddha can’t be estimated with much accuracy because these are [simply] not available in the market,” Mr Jan said, adding that the recovered items contained about 29 tolas of pure gold.

In response to a question, he said the exporter and the cargo agent would be arrested soon.

Sources, meanwhile, confirmed that an FIR had been registered against the culprits and further investigations launched.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2017