Ts.Oyungerel: When Eric Prokopi was Arrested, Delivery of Another Dinosaur Skeleton Arrived at His Home
The following is an interview from the Undesnii Shuudan Newspaper with Ts.Oyungerel, the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
-The Mongolian Police provided evidence to prove Eric Prokopi for smuggling a dinosaur fossil skeleton, and therefore he was arrested not long after. Does it mean the evidence had sped up the progress of the case?
-It was necessary to prove with undeniable evidence that a citizen of the United States, Eric Prokopi, violated the border of Mongolia, conducted illegal excavations, and illegally transported Mongolian valuable archaeological artifacts. Prosecuting organizations told that it would take time to prove that how exactly he did that. Actually, trial is set to take place in December regarding this case. The trial is pending to determine whether the dinosaur skeleton of Tarbosaurus Bataar was Mongolian or not, and whether it should be returned to Mongolia. We had no choice but to wait for the decision to be made by that trial. However, the Mongolian State Investigation Department, whose head has been recently changed, rapidly completed the investigation on this case, and collected and submitted evidence. The authorities of the Ministry of Justice also worked with the State Investigation Department. In other words, it means the arrest of Eric Prokopi residing in the US, is a result of good investigational work by Mongolians and transferring the evidence to the US. The fact that the criminal case accusing Eric Prokopi of repeated charges, demonstrates how well the various Mongolian Investigation Departments performed. In particular, there was a photo showing him at the excavation site in Umnugovi Province of Mongolia, excavating the dinosaur skeleton, and transporting the bones to the US. In addition, a joint paleontological team, which included Mongolian paleontologist, Ph.D. Kh.Tsogtbaatar, Canadian and US experts, conducted an inspection on the fossil skeleton and sent their findings proving it was of Mongolian origin. This evidence also supported the case in favor of Mongolia.
-When will the Tarbosaurus be returned to Mongolia? Can we take the proof submitted as justification to return the fossil?
- Eric Prokopi is being investigated under a Criminal Case. It isn’t certain yet that if the dinosaur skeleton can be returned to Mongolia. That decision is made by the US Courts and be decided by the US laws. It is impossible to give the exact answers to this question now.
-What legal acts or agreements do the USA and Mongolia have between in fields of exchanging and protecting cultural heritages? What difficulties do we have recently to bring back the dinosaur skeleton?
-The USA and Mongolia don’t have cultural heritages or extradition agreements. However, legal authorities, courts and US Federal Prosecutors have worked cooperatively with Mongolian investigative authorities. We want to express our gratitude to the people of the USA, and to US Federal Prosecutors. We have of course faced some objections, for example, Prokopi’s attorney submitted his opinion that it wasn’t necessary to return dinosaur skeleton to Mongolia, citing that there is no agreement or treaty between the two countries. He also claimed that there is no extradition treaty between Mongolia and the USA, and attempted to persuade the public by emphasizing USA and Mongolia didn’t have mutual responsibilities to protect their cultural heritages. Luckily, the USA and Mongolia are both members of the UNESCO. Hence, we have observed the regulation to respect each other’s cultural heritages and to return cultural items found on one’s territory. The action of returning the dinosaur to Mongolia skeleton will be done under the auspices of UNESCO.
-We are only making sensations about the Tarbosaurus Bataar. There has been recent news that three of such fossils were also smuggled out of Mongolia. Isn’t it because Mongolian paleontologists are involved in this since many dinosaur skeletons are smuggled out of the country?
-I also had the fear that recognized paleontologists of Mongolia may have participated in this smuggling. But it would have been different if they had participated. Their participation would have influenced and reflected negatively of the reputation of the Mongolian paleontology sector. The State Investigation Department was constantly reporting to me about the progress of this case. Also, I could breathe freely after I saw the evidence the Federal US Prosecuting Attorneys provided. Their evidence showed no information that Mongolian paleontologists were involved in this case. Therefore, I trust them. I would like to appeal to Mongolians to trust them too. The Mongolian Government must protect the sites where paleontologists have done research. Illegal excavations are being conducted at the sites they have discovered, because the government cannot protect them. We found out that illegal actions to smuggle and unauthorized digging at archaeological sites have taken place for at least 10 years. The case of Eric Prokopi is a clear example of this. The Complaint of the accused, Eric Prokopi, also included that he smuggled from Mongolia four other dinosaurs’ skeletons. There may be a fifth one but the investigation is ongoing.
-Has it been determined that a fifth dinosaur skeleton smuggled out of Mongolia? Have you received such information?
-During the arrest of Eric Prokopi, a delivery of dinosaur skeleton from Mongolia arrived at his home. We have been recently informed that the investigation into what kind of dinosaur it is, who sent it, and from which postal address it came from Mongolia has began.
-Such huge skeleton can’t be just hidden in a bag and not seen at the border. Isn’t it that a whole smuggling network has formed in which locals took part? What information do you have on this?
-We need some time to investigate and determine the individuals involved and connected to Eric Prokopi. In addition, how a dinosaur skeleton passed through the border customs. We don’t have much time, as I mentioned before. The head of the State Investigation Department was replaced less than a month ago. But they completed in two weeks what couldn’t be completed during the previous six months. I am sure that they have additional investigations to complete. They should give priority on the investigation to the individuals who helped foreigners smuggle valuable Mongolian artifacts. This smuggling network must be broken up and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
-This case has been a big improvement in protecting and caring for the valuable Mongolian artifacts. You must be pleased about this too?
-The paleontology world is thanking Mongolia for making this criminal case. The paleontology field are addressing their perspective governments and asking to follow the example of Mongolia. Mongolia, China, Canada and the USA lead the world in archaeological findings. Many scientists are seeing that if such smuggling is curtailed in those countries that would be a large contribution to the smuggling of paleontological artifacts throughout the world.
-Where will the Bataar be kept after it is returned?
-We of course have to plan where to keep such a valuable rare finding. Mongolian scientists have raised this issue many times long before. The Tarbosaurus Bataar issue is leading into to talks about building a fossil museum. I hope the issue where to keep the dinosaur skeleton will be resolved before it is returned.
-The historical artifacts have been smuggled out of the country. How is the legal environment of Mongolia to protect valuable historical artifacts and findings?
-There are many reasons behind this. First reason is that we need to create a special laboratory for restoration of the artifacts, museums and storage. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism submitted a draft law on safeguarding Mongolian cultural heritages to the parliament just last week. Parliament formulated draft laws covering both cultural and natural heritages. We are thinking of discussing it in the autumn parliament session.
-We have heard that the Federal Court of the USA has planned to sentence Eric Prokopi to 20 years imprisonment to for attempting to illegally sell the Tarbosaurus Bataar.
-The court trial was held according to the Mongolian President’s claim. However, we haven’t received any information of the court determination of sentencing or fines.
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