California man accused of smuggling Byzantine-era mosaic out of Syria

California man accused of smuggling Byzantine-era mosaic out of Syria

(CNN) – A California man has been accused of smuggling a Byzantine-era mosaic out of war-torn Syria and hiring artists to restore it in order to sell it.

On Wednesday, the US Attorney’s office for the Central District of California filed an asset forfeiture complaint seeking to retain possession of the mosaic, which is already in the government’s custody. The complaint names Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi of Palmdale, California, and says he illegally smuggled the mosaic into the US.

According to the complaint, the FBI has been investigating Alcharihi since 2015 for his alleged involvement in smuggling looted items from war-ravaged countries, including Syria. Alcharihi — who has not been charged with a crime — is a Syrian national who became a US citizen in early 2010, the complaint says.

When Alcharihi had a company import the mosaic, he misrepresented the contents of the shipment, the complaint alleges, and also lied about the country of origin of the items inside. He allegedly told the shipping company, two artists who were hired to restore the piece and federal agents that he had bought the mosaic in Turkey.

Federal agents seized the mosaic in March 2016, the complaint says, and an expert subsequently determined it was from the Byzantine Period “and was consistent with the iconography of mosaics found in Syria, in particular in and around the city of Idlib, Syria.”

After reviewing pictures of the mosaic, prior to the FBI seizure, the expert determined the style of the mosaic was “similar to the style of the Roman Empire possibly from 3rd to 4th Century AD,” the complaint states.

The 1-ton mosaic is 18 feet long and 8 feet high, according to the complaint, and depicts characters from Roman mythology.

During the investigation agents found evidence Alcharihi had illegally imported the mosaic using fraudulent documents and knowingly concealed it in his home. Both are violations of federal law.

CNN was unable to reach Alcharihi for comment.

For years the US has endeavored to work with foreign countries to reduce the illegal trafficking of artifacts and antiquities taken from states devastated by war, citing the potential strain on foreign relations and the concerns of the archaeological community.

The policy has become of increased import in recent years in regards to Syria, where archaeologists and scholars have struggled to preserve ancient works of art after the reign of ISIS.

In 2015, ISIS militants allegedly destroyed ancient cultural artifacts when it took control of the Syrian city of Palmyra, including one that dated back to the second century.

But experts don’t believe ISIS is doing much of the reselling. It’s likely gangs that are looting the artifacts to put them on the market, though Spanish police earlier this year arrested two men accused of smuggling art looted from Libya by ISIS-affiliated groups.

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