Greek Man Testifies in Bulgarian Lawyers’ Trial over Treasure Hunting, Destruction of Thracian Tumulus
Greek citizen Nicolaos Uzunidis, 53, has testified before the District Court in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Burgas in the trial of Zdravko Chepishev and Zhivko Chepishev, lawyers who are charged with treasure hunting and destruction of an Ancient Thracian tumulus (burial mound).
The Chepishev brothers are accused of having participating in a treasure hunting crime on November 22, 2011, when they were arrested in their car close to an Ancient Thracian burial mound near the town of Chernograd, Aytos Municipality, in Southeast Bulgaria.
At the time of their arrest, another Greek citizen, Sotiris Simeonidis, 32, was digging up the Thracian tumulus with a Komatsu excavator, while their client Nicoloas Uzunidis, a farmer who also holds a Bulgarian citizenship, was in the nearby town of Karnobat.
The two Greek men have not been charged by the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office, and have been summoned only as witnesses. The defendants claim they were on the crime scene in their capacity of lawyers of Uzunidis who was looking at agricultural land that he wanted to rent, and were waiting for the land owners to arrive with their lawyers; they say they saw the man with the excavator there for the first time.
Uzunidis’s testimony before the Burgas court has been contradictory and confusing, according to the report of Bulgarian daily 24 Chasa. He has confirmed that he has been using the legal services of the Chepishev brothers.
However, he has first said they were supposed to check whether some agricultural land plots corresponded with their description in the paperwork they had, but has later changed his testimony by saying that the Chepishevs were supposed to find suitable plots of arable land for him to rent.
Because of his contradictory testimony, judge Katya Gospodinova restated here questions several times, stressing that he could be charged with perjury and get up to 5 years in prison.
When the Chepishev brothers were confronted with the witness, they have stated they know him in their legal capacity; they continue to claim that their case has been a setup.
The other Greek citizen, Sotiris Simeonidis, who operated the excavator, and technically destroyed the Ancient Thracian burial mound, has been summoned as a witness but has failed to show up.
Not unlike the Chepishev brothers, Uzunidis claims he saw Simeonidis for the first time after all four of them were arrested. Yet, the report says that in his police interrogation he admitted to knowning Simeonidis.
Three archaeologists have also given testimonies – Milen Nikolov, who is the Director of the Burgas Regional Museum of History, Konstantin Gospodinov, and Doroteya Gyurdzhiyska.
They have revealed that the Ancient Thracian tumulus has been registered as a cultural monument of national significance but has never been excavated by archaeologists.
When they visited the crime scene to inspect the damage done to the burial mound, they found a fresh hole in its top. Since the digging was done without any regard for archaeological methods, the destruction of the layers has caused “irreparable damage", the experts say.
Zhivko Chepishev and Zdravko Chepishev, who are also town councilors in the southern town of Devin, claim they are the victims of selective prosecution, and have filed complaints with Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov, and a suite with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
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.