Official gets death for stealing relics
A cultural relics official in Chengde city of Hebei Province was sentenced to death for involvement in the country's biggest relics theft since the establishment of People's Republic of China in 1949.
A local court in Chengde, North China's Hebei Province, ruled on Friday that Li Haitao, chief of the relics protection section of Chengde's Waibamiao cultural relics management department, had stolen 152 antiques.
Waibamiao is part of the imperial summer resort of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Seventy of the items were found in Li's home and another 40 pieces, which had already been sold, were also retrieved. Investigations indicated four of the stolen items were "first grade" relics -- some of the most important in the country.
Li, who had been in charge of the cultural relics protection section since 1992, had been stealing antiques for about a decade, the Chengde Intermediary People's Court said.
The other four men -- Wang Xiaoguang, Yan Feng, Zhang Huazhang and Chen Fengwei --were also sentenced for illegally selling cultural relics.
Their jail term ranged from two years to seven years.
Li and Yan said that they will appeal to a higher court.
Suspicions had been raised in October 2002 when two royal cultural relics labelled "Forbidden City" were found in an auction in Hong Kong by a visiting expert from the Chinese mainland.
Some cultural relics had been sent from Beijing's Palace Museum to local museums in the 1950s and 1960s, but they were not returned.
The expert reported his findings to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, which traced the antiques back to Chengde.
Local police said Li had easy access to the items because he held the keys for three storerooms at the museum.
State Administration of Cultural Heritage Director Shan Jixiang recently said cultural relics protection faced the twin threats of theft and urban reconstruction.
Shan warned that the safety of housed relics was a major cause for concern, he said. Since 1998, eight cases have been uncovered involving several museum works and 268 smuggled relics.
Stone sculptures and relics in temples are vulnerable to theft, since most of them are widely scattered in fields and lack enough protection. A total of 252 cases occurred involving these relics between 1996 and 2003, about 67.7 per cent of the total relics cases during the period.
Driven by huge profits, criminals are active in unearthing ancient tombs and cultural heritage sites. They usually employ modern communication equipment and transportation and have destroyed many important graves.
Some ancient buildings are vulnerable to fire. Since 1998, over 110 ancient rooms and 537 relics were destroyed by fire.