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Former dictator's son-in-law accused of looting ancient sculpture from Algeria

Ousted Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family have already been accused of plundering the nation's antiquities, particularly the ancient site of Carthage, for their own personal gain and enjoyment. Now it seems that the family's illicit reach extended further than previously realized: experts have identified a white marble sculpture found in the house of Ben Ali's son-in-law, Sakher el-Materi, as the Gorgon's Mask, a massive object that was stolen from Algeria back in 1996. 

The Hippo Regius ruins in Algeria [Credit: Boris Staykov]
Authenticated by experts from the Algerian culture ministry, the artifact is key evidence in el-Materi's ongoing trial for archaeological plundering and trafficking, Le Journal des Arts reports. (Ben Ali is living in Saudi Arabia and el-Materi has been granted permanent residency by Qatar, but both are being tried by Tunisia in absentia, and Ben Ali has already been sentenced to decades of prison time for crimes including corruption and torture.) According to the Algerian newspaper Liberté, the Gorgon's Mask was first spotted by Saïd Dahmani, the former director of the Hippone antiquities museum, in a television program filmed in el-Materi's house after the fall of the regime. Ultimately, 164 plundered archaeological objects were discovered in the residence shared by el-Materi and Nesrine Ben Ali. 

The sculpture, which depicts the head of a mythological Gorgon with hair of writhing snakes, was looted from a public fountain in Annaba, Algeria, site of the ancient city of Hippone. Three feet high and weighing over 700 pounds, the sizable artifact could not have been easy to remove. Writing for Liberté, Mohamed-Chérif Lachichi presumes that local authorities were complicit in the theft and has accused the Algerian culture ministry of complacency in the face of persistent looting. 

After the sculpture was discovered, residents of Annaba started a campaign to insist that it be returned to their city, even creating a Facebook group called "Notre Gorgone" ("Our Gorgon"). Today, Tunisian culture minister Mehdi Mabrouk confirmed to the Tunis Afrique Presse agency that the Gorgon's Head is being "protected and guarded at the National Institute of Tunisian Heritage and will be returned to the Algerian authorities after the legal proceedings are complete." 

Author: Kate Deimling | Source: ARTINFO France [May 30, 2012]

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