Prominent businessman Hassan Rateb and 20 other defendants were taken to criminal court on Sunday after being charged by a public prosecutor with illegally searching and smuggling antiques.
A prosecution statement says Rateb was arrested in June after police investigations revealed he was paying for illegal archaeological digs carried out by former parliamentarian Alaa Hassanein.
Mr. Hassanein and three others were arrested in June along with Mr. Rateb.
Most of the excavation has been carried out in the historic Cairene district of Masr El Qadeema, or Old Cairo, an area famous for its Islamic and Coptic relics.
Sunday’s prosecution statement named Hassanein the leader of the gang that conducted illegal searches and traded in stolen goods.
In addition to illegal excavations and unauthorized sale of antiques, he was accused of damaging national property when he dismantled some of the artifacts in an effort to smuggle them more easily.
Security officers apprehended a total of 21 gang members, 19 of whom are in custody. Two others are on the run.
An inventory prepared by government antiques experts detailed the contents of a secret warehouse allegedly used by the defendants. It has revealed artifacts dating back to ancient Egypt, the Greek and Roman eras.
The list includes tablets with hieroglyphic carvings, prehistoric rocks, surgical needles from the Islamic era, and ancient vases and statues.
Mr. Rateb is a household name in Egypt, especially in business circles.
After launching the private Al Mehwar TV channel some 20 years ago, it has invested heavily in the northern and central regions of the Sinai Peninsula.
Mr. Rateb is accused of conspiring with Mr. Hassanein and of having financed the activities of the gang, according to the press release of the prosecution. The other gang members are accused of joining the gang with full knowledge of the illegality of their actions.
Fifteen testimonies about the gang’s activities have been turned over to prosecutors, according to Sunday’s statement.
A large number of photos and videos were found on several of the defendants’ smartphones documenting the illegal searches, in addition to images of the stolen artifacts and incriminating conversations between gang members.
The hearing date for the 23 defendants has not yet been announced.
Illegal excavations are not uncommon in Egypt, where archaeological sites are spread across almost the entire length of the Nile – from the Mediterranean coast all the way south to the Sudanese border.
Smuggling artefacts is profitable given the global demand for antiques by private collectors.
But illegal work is dangerous, and there have been several incidents in recent years of excavation tunnels collapsing, burying diggers alive. Many illegal diggers carry out their work on private land to avoid detection.
In recent years, Egypt has stepped up efforts to track down stolen items around the world, monitoring auctions in major Western cities and pressuring authorities to return them.
Updated: December 12, 2021, 6:45 PM