Appellate Court in Bulgaria’s Burgas Terminates High Profile Treasure Hunting Trial over Technicality
The Appellate Court in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Burgas has confirmed the acquittal of Zhivko Chepishev and Zdravko Chepishev, lawyer twin brothers, on charges of treasure hunting and destruction of an Ancient Thracian burial mound (tumulus) in a trial that has generated much media interest in the recent months.
The confirmation of the Chepishev Brothers’ acquittal appears to be over a technicality resulting from flawed coordination between the Prosecutor’s Offices in Sofia and Burgas.
The Chepishev brothers had been 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, a Greek citizen, Sotiris Simeonidis, 32, was digging up the Thracian tumulus with a Komatsu excavator, while another Greek citizen, and allegedly 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 even though the testimonies of Uzunidis in the trial of Zdravko Chepishev and Zhivko Chepishev appeared contradictory.
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.
In July 2015, the Burgas District Court acquitted the Chepishev Brothers on both counts – of treasure hunting and destruction of an archaeological monument.
It also ruled against a BGN 70,000 (app. EUR 35,000) compensation claim by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Regional Development.
Now the Burgas Appellate Court has terminated the trial altogether while considering an appeal by the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office against the verdict of the Burgas District Court.
The two defendants had pleaded for a termination of the trial arguing that the appeal should have been filed by the Burgas District Prosecutor’s Office, and that the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office had no right to do so without a special authorization by Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor.
Their arguments have been found to be justified, the press service of the Burgas Appellate Court has announced in a release.
There has been no explanation from the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office as to why the appeal of the Chepishevs’ acquittal had not been filed by the “right” Prosecutor’s Office – the one in Burgas.
A total of three archaeologists had given testimonies in the high-profile treasure hunting trial of the Chepishev Brothers: Milen Nikolov, who is the Director of the Burgas Regional Museum of History, Konstantin Gospodinov, and Doroteya Gyurdzhiyska.
They revealed that the damaged Ancient Thracian tumulus near Chernograd 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 suit 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.