Bulgarian Lawyers Go on Trial for Treasure Hunting, Shattering Ancient Thracian Burial Mound
Bulgarian twin brothers Zhivko Chepishev and Zdravko Chepishev, who are lawyers and town councilors in the southern town of Devin, have gone on trial for treasure hunting and destroying an Ancient Thracian burial mound with an excavator back in 2011.
The District Court in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Burgas has started the trial against the Chepishev brothers on two counts – searching and destruction of archaeological sites, the court press center has announced.
Zhivko Chepishev and Zdravko Chepishev have been accused of shattering an Ancient Thracian tumulus (burial mound) with an excavator on November 22, 2011, at noon. The Thracian mound in question is located near the town of Chernograd, Aytos Municipality, in Southeast Bulgaria.
Their accomplices are said to have been two Greek men, one of whom drove the excavator. The Greeks, however, have not been charged, and have been summoned only as witnesses.
According to the prosecution, their treasure hunting activity resulted in “significant damage and severe consequences” for the Ancient Thracian tumulus.
“[They] shattered a supporting stone wall in the foundation of the mound which has a structural role for supporting the mound earthwork, affected the stone facility in the northwestern part of the mound, and caused damage worth BGN 70,000 (app. EUR 35,000), which are commensurate with the cost of carrying out rescue excavations and restoration of the cultural monument,” says the court statement.
The Burgas District Court has accepted a BGN 70,000 claim against the twin brothers by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Regional Development for material damages.
The Chepishev brothers, who have not hired other lawyers for their defense, have pleaded not guilty. They say they don’t understand the accusations because the prosecution has not made clear their personal responsibility.
Thus, the brothers claim they were on the crime scene in order to help a client of theirs with the inspection of land properties which their client wanted to rent. They also claim they saw there for the first time the person operating the excavator. The police found them inside a car in which they were waiting for the owners of the land and their lawyers.
The Burgas District Court has interrogated a total of 8 witnesses, and has set the next court hearing for April 30, 2015.
An earlier media report said the alleged treasure hunters had claimed that the excavator was searching for water in the same location.
Before the court hearing, the Chepishev brothers issued a media statement claiming they are the victims of arbitrary and selective actions on part of the prosecution.
They say they were on the site in their capacity of lawyers of Greek citizen Nicolaos Uzunidis, 53, who wanted to rent lands in the area. They deny knowing the driver of the excavator, another Greek citizen, Sotiris Simeonidis, 32. The Greek citizens have only been interrogated as witnesses, and have not been charged with treasure hunting.
At the time of the police arrest, the Simeonidis was digging up the Ancient Thracian burial mound near Chernograd with a Komatsu excavator, Uzinidis was in the nearby town of Karnobat, and the Chepishev brothers were in a car near the crime scene. The police say the excavator had been transported to the site with another special heavy vehicle judging from the tyre tracks they found.
The Chepishev brothers have filed a complained with Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov asking for a probe into the actions of the prosecutors from Sofia and Burgas as well as a suit with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over alleged selective prosecution. On top of that, they claim their trial might be politically motivated.
The treasure hunting investigation against the Chepishev brothers was first conducted by the District Prosecutor’s Office in Burgas. In 2012, it was transferred to the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (GDBOP) of the Interior Ministry in Sofia, and in 2013 – to the investigation unit at the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office.
According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the investigation has been hurdled by the numerous complains and pleas filed by the two lawyers, which in most cases were “unfounded”.
One of the Greek men, Nicolaos Uzunidis, has a Bulgarian citizenship; he is an agricultural producer cultivating land in both Bulgaria and Greece, and has been friends with the Chepishev brothers, who are also his lawyers, for more than 20 years.
“We have not destroyed or found any Thracian treasures. We have not reached any level near the [mound] chamber. The place is not even a Thracian burial mound. It is a field boundary between two fields, a mound of earth and bushes,” the brother lawyers say in their statement.
Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking. One recent estimate suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.