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The ‘predatory’ global economy of looted antiquities

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The charges relate to the purchase of a pink granite stele depicting the pharaoh Tutankhamun and four other historic works for millions of dollars by The Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi
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The charging of the Louvre’s former director in an antiquities trafficking investigation has shone a light on a vast, transnational criminal problem that remains fiendishly difficult to target. 

Ancient burial grounds around the world have increasingly become “open-air supermarkets” for everyone from petty thieves to organised criminals, said Vincent Michel, professor of archaeology at the University of Poitiers in France.

He describes a “sophisticated chain” stretching from sites in unstable places such as Iraq, Syria and Libya — but also many other parts of the world — via transit countries to auction houses and private collectors in Europe and the United States, and increasingly Asia and the Gulf. 

It is an illicit trade that “serves mafias, drug traffickers and terrorist groups, abusing collectors and museums with complete impunity”, said Michel. 

The ex-director of the Louvre in Paris, Jean-Luc Martinez, was charged last week over the purchase of a pink granite stele depicting the pharaoh Tutankhamun and four other historic works for eight million euros ($8.5 million) by the museum’s branch in Abu Dhabi. 

Martinez, who has strongly denied any wrong-doing, is accused of turning a blind eye to fake certificates of origin for the pieces, a fraud thought to involve several other art experts, according to French investigative weekly Canard Enchaine.

Such allegations are far from a rarity in the art world where the value of looted antiquities is thought to reach into the “tens or even hundreds of millions of euros” per year, according to Michel. 

He trains police, judges and customs officials to help counter the trade but resources are notoriously limited in the sector, and he has called for deeper public awareness and a more concerted interdisciplinary fight. 

“This transnational crime feeds a predatory economy that undermines our national security. It is also an irreversible attack on heritage because a looted object, taken out of its context, loses all scientific value,” Michel said.

– Global reach – 

The Covid-19 pandemic has only deepened the challenge. 

Egyptian authorities say the number of illegal digs jumped massively in recent years to hit 8,960 in 2020. 

Looters use metal detectors to hunt gold, silver and bronze items, often stored in perfect condition in tombs thanks to the arid climate. 

But the problem is not limited to poorer countries. 

France has seen an uptick in looting from archaeological sites, said Xavier Delestre, who works for the regional cultural authorities based in Marseilles. 

He said high-value items were often laundered through so-called “freeports” — tax haven storage sites with minimal oversight in places like Geneva, Luxembourg and Singapore — emerging with false back-stories. 

Lower-value items ended up on social media and online stores. 

– ‘Almost undetectable’ – 

Michel said counterfeiters are “incredibly ingenious” when it comes to masking the illicit origin of items, creating documents with a careful mix of false and true information, fabricating false export permits or purchase invoices — even UNESCO certificates. 

Once reintroduced into the legal market, “a looted item is almost undetectable,” he added. 

Internet sales have made it even harder for law enforcement officials to trace criminals and keep a handle on the problem.

A 2019 report by US counter-trafficking organisation ATHAR tracked 95 Arabic-language Facebook groups specialising in antiquities trafficking, with a total of nearly two million members. 

“Facebook offers a veritable digital toolbox for traffickers to utilise, including photo and video uploads, live streaming, disappearing ‘Stories’, payment mechanisms, and encrypted messaging,” the report said.  

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Google to delete user location history on US abortion clinic visits

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Google has faced calls to limit smartphone data collection in the wake of anti-abortion laws passed in the United States
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Google announced Friday it would delete users’ location history when they visit abortion clinics, domestic violence shelters and other places where privacy is sought.

“If our systems identify that someone has visited one of these places, we will delete these entries from Location History soon after they visit,” Jen Fitzpatrick, a senior vice president at Google, wrote in a blog post. “This change will take effect in the coming weeks.” 

Other places from which Google will not store location data include fertility centers, addiction treatment facilities, and weight loss clinics.

The announcement comes a week after the US Supreme Court made the tectonic decision to strip American women of constitutional rights to abortion, leading a dozen states to ban or severely restrict the procedure and prompting mass protests across the country.

Activists and politicians have been calling on Google and other tech giants to limit the amount of information they collect to avoid it being used by law enforcement for abortion investigations and prosecutions.

Fitzpatrick also sought to reassure users that the company takes data privacy seriously.

“Google has a long track record of pushing back on overly broad demands from law enforcement, including objecting to some demands entirely,” she wrote. 

“We take into account the privacy and security expectations of people using our products, and we notify people when we comply with government demands.”

Concerns over smartphone data and reproductive rights arose even before the Supreme Court ruling, when several conservative US states in recent months passed laws that give members of the public the right to sue doctors who perform abortions — or anyone who helps facilitate them.

That led a group of top Democratic lawmakers in May to send a letter to Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, asking him to stop collecting smartphone location data lest it become “a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care.”

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Kerry vows US to meet climate goal despite court setback

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US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry fists-bumps a guest at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June 2022
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US climate envoy John Kerry vowed Friday the United States will meet goals it submitted to the United Nations on slashing greenhouse gas emissions, despite a Supreme Court ruling that curtailed the government’s powers.

“We are determined to achieve our goals. We can achieve our goals,” Kerry told AFP.

“But obviously it would help if we had a majority of the Supreme Court in the United States of America that actually understood the gravity of the situation and was more willing to try to be helpful rather than present a hurdle of one kind or another,” he said.

President Joe Biden, after defeating the climate-skeptic Donald Trump, in April last year said the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, dramatically increasing the climate ambitions of the world’s largest economy.

He submitted the so-called nationally determined contribution to the UN climate body in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, the landmark deal brokered by Kerry when he was secretary of state.

China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, called Friday on all nations to live up to Paris commitments, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying of the United States, “it is not enough to just chant slogans.”

Kerry, who has worked with Chinese officials in his climate role despite soaring tensions between Beijing and Washington, said that he was “not surprised by the messaging” from the Asian power.

“We will show China precisely how we’re going to get the job done,” Kerry said.

In an unusual commentary, Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, called the Supreme Court decision “a setback in our fight against climate change.”

– ‘Every option available’ –

The Supreme Court, finishing a term in which three justices nominated by Trump pushed it sharply to the right, on Thursday cut the wings off a key way in which the government could have tackled climate change.

In a 6-3 ruling branded “devastating” by Biden, the top court said the Environmental Protection Agency did not have authority to order sweeping cuts on emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“I am convinced — and our legal people are looking at it very carefully — that this decision leaves plenty of latitude for us to be able to do a lot of things that we need to do,” Kerry said.

Asked about calls by some lawmakers from his Democratic Party for Biden to declare a climate emergency, Kerry said, “I think the president needs to evaluate every option available.”

Coal accounts for around 20 percent of US electricity generation — still roughly on par with renewables. China, despite investing heavily in wind and solar, has also kept building coal production capacity.

But Kerry said that the marketplace showed that coal was not the future.

“Nobody’s going to fund any new coal power in the United States — no bank, no private lender. Coal is the dirtiest fuel in the world,” he said.

– ‘Pin into balloon’ –

Scientists warn that the world is far off track in avoiding the worst ravages of climate change including worsening heatwaves, floods, drought, rising sea levels and storm surges. 

The Paris accord set the goal of limiting end-of-century warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels — and preferably not beyond 1.5 degrees — but the planet has already warmed by nearly 1.2 Celsius.

Ruth Greenspan Bell, a climate expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said it was difficult for the United States to show climate leadership while also fighting internally on whether it is a priority.

“It’s kind of putting a pin into a balloon. There’s a little bit less air in the balloon than there was before,” she said of the court decision. 

“The times call for a moonshot but imagine trying to pull off a moonshot when you are at the same time in a defensive crouch.”

Environmental groups have put guarded hope in negotiations in Congress on an energy bill that would include climate action.

But on the Democratic side, Senator Joe Manchin from coal-producing West Virginia holds the key vote — and Trump’s Republican Party is widely expected to advance in November elections.

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French police bust gang selling fake Bordeaux wine

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Bordeaux wines have become a major target of thieves and traffickers, who seek to profit off its worldwide recognition.
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French police have broken up a gang that had allegedly produced hundreds of thousands of bottles of fake Bordeaux wine in an elaborate counterfeiting operation, prosecutors said on Friday.

Officers investigating drug dealing in the southwestern French region discovered printing machinery being used to create the labels for the bottles last September, sparking a wider criminal probe.

It led to the arrest of around 20 people on Monday during an operation in seven different areas of France, with three of them charged with organised fraud, counterfeiting and money laundering.

The main suspect is a winemaker and broker in the Medoc region near Bordeaux who was buying low-grade wine from other areas including Spain, then bottling it up as more expensive local produce, a statement from Bordeaux prosecutors’ office said.

“Major orders” had been placed for the wine “destined for supermarkets and foreign countries”, the statement added.

Bottling operations were being run at night to avoid detection, it said.

“If the allegations are proven, we hope that the culprits will be heavily punished because these practices undermine the image of Bordeaux wines and those who work properly and respect the rules,” the local wine industry body told AFP.

French wine makers, customs and police are constantly on the lookout for cheats who pass off budget plonk as top vintages.

In 2016, police busted a Bordeaux vintner who was blending poor-quality wine with high-end Saint-Emilions, Lalande-de-Pomerols and Listrac-Medocs to sell to major supermarkets under prestigious labels.

The owner of several domains, Francois-Marie Marret, was handed a prison sentence and a fine of eight million euros after being found bringing in cheap wine at night.

In 2010, 12 French winemakers and dealers were convicted of selling millions of bottles of fake Pinot Noir to the US firm E&J Gallo.

Before that, in 2006 legendary Beaujolais winemaker Georges Duboeuf was fined more than 30,000 euros for blending grapes from different vineyards to disguise the poor quality of certain prized vintages.

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