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Scholar to go on trial in Iraq relic smuggling
Eddy Ramirez NYT Monday, August 02, 2004
NEW YORK Joseph Braude said his visit to Iraq last summer had been as much about reconnecting with his past and visiting the neighborhood where his mother was born, as it had been about getting information to update a book he had written about rebuilding the country.
But the U.S. prosecutor in Brooklyn contends that he returned to New York with much more than research. Braude, who goes on trial soon, faces charges of smuggling three 4,000-year-old cylindrical marble and alabaster stone seals. The relics, decorated with human and animal figures, had been part of a collection at the Iraqi National Museum, which was looted after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.
He also is charged with lying to customs officers at Kennedy International Airport in New York in June 2003, saying that he had not been to Iraq, when he was first questioned about the seals. They were found in a plastic bag in his suitcase.
He faces as much as five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
Braude's case has attracted the attention of legal experts and prominent government figures, including R. James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, who met Braude more than a year ago to discuss ideas proposed in Braude's book.
A graduate of Yale and Princeton Universities, Braude spent much of the past decade traveling throughout the Middle East and became fluent in Arabic, Persian and Hebrew. He worked at an Islamic archive in the United Arab Emirates, where he helped recover and preserve antique Arabic manuscripts.
His lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, says his client is not guilty. Braude spoke to a reporter in Brafman's office on the condition that he would not answer questions about the specific charges against him. He did say, however, that he was just as outraged as prosecutors about the pilfering of Iraq's antiquities.
Braude, a U.S. citizen, said his great-great-grandfather had been the last chief rabbi of a once-thriving Jewish community in Baghdad. He wrote a book before the war about how to rebuild Iraq once Saddam Hussein was toppled.
After the U.S.-led forces gained control of the country, he said, he visited Iraq in June 2003 to write an introduction to a revised paperback version of the book, "The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for its People, the Middle East and the World."
"And I wanted - really above all - to taste, smell and feel the place for myself and gauge how I would feel about spending a very long time there," he said.
Braude said he also had been looking to find work with the U.S. government at what was then the Office of Reconstruction in Baghdad.
"I wanted to implement some of the ideas I had explored in the book and be a constructive person on the ground," he said.
Court documents offered the government's version of what occurred when Braude was in Iraq and at Kennedy Airport when he returned.
According to the report from the two customs agents who questioned him, Braude entered Iraq on a journalist's visa he had obtained from the authorities in Kuwait.
The agents indicated that Braude and an Iraqi, who was acting as his guide, had discussed the looting of the Iraqi National Museum, and had, their report said, "decided it would be a good idea to meet with one of these black market merchants and acquire some of these items instead of letting another private collector get the items only to hoard them."
The next day, the report said, Braude met with a young Iraqi man dressed in Western clothing who was introduced to him as "Mohammed, the king of the black market."
Mohammed arrived with a large plastic bag, and, "with an eager smile," pulled out a dozen cylinder seals and placed them on a table before Braude. The report said that Braude was unsure of the exact value of the items, but after a little haggling, he agreed to pay $200 for two of the smallest seals. Once the deal was made, the merchant "let Braude have a third seal of his choice for free."
The report said that Braude had not declared the stone seals on his customs declaration form and that he had told agents that he had not been in Iraq. But later, the agents said, he "admitted that he had indeed traveled to Iraq and had acquired these items from Baghdad." Braude told the agents that he planned to have the seals appraised in the United States and then "turn them over to the proper authorities."
Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a marine who heads the international investigation into the theft of artifacts from Iraq, is expected to testify against Braude. Bogdanos declined to comment on Braude, but he said that the search for Iraqi artifacts was continuing.
Bogdanos estimated that 13,000 artifacts had been stolen from the Iraqi museums and other archeological sites after the war. Of those, 5,000 have been recovered, many of them from neighboring countries, some from Britain and the United States.
"There are another 8,000 pieces out there, and that devastates me," Bogdanos said. "Any one of them is a priceless piece of shared human heritage."
Woolsey, the former CIA director, said that he was "extremely surprised" when he learned that Braude was being charged with smuggling artifacts.
Braude had assisted the United States in counterterrorism operations during his education at Yale and Princeton and later as a consultant.
"I'm aware that he has been helpful to the U.S. government on matters related to terrorism," Woolsey said. "He's very interested in the cultural underpinnings of establishing a democracy and a free society," he said.
Woolsey said that, whatever the trial's outcome, people should "not run away from what I think is an excellent set of ideas about Iraq's future."
The U.S. military was sharply criticized for not doing more to stop the looting of Iraqi museums after Saddam lost his grip on the country.
Charles Nesson, who teaches evidence and digital technology law at Harvard Law School, met Braude two years ago and said he had become absorbed with his case.
He said that he did not know of any other case in which the U.S. government had sought to prosecute someone for smuggling items that he said might not be worth no more than a few hundred dollars.
"I just got the sense that this kid was being railroaded," he said. "Why they're pursuing it like a major felony feels like serious overkill to me."
The U.S. prosecutor's office said it would prosecute anyone who tried to smuggle artifacts, no matter the value.
Last year, when the charges against Braude were announced, Roslynn Mauskopf, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said, "This administration sent a clear signal that we would not allow thieves to take advantage of the conflict in Iraq to pilfer its antiquities."
The question that seems likely to be raised at the trial is what Braude's intentions were. Was he pilfering the seals for his own uses? Or did he plan, as the custom agents say he told them, to turn them over to the proper authorities?
During the interview, Braude recalled a Hebrew saying that seemed to touch upon the issue: "First we will do and then we will listen."
Braude then explained, "And that is so fervently within their desire to do the right thing, that they found themselves doing things even before being instructed to do so."
The New York Times