The former director of a national antiquities department was among three men sentenced to life in prison Saturday, after being convicted in a scam that smuggled thousands of antiquities out of Egypt.
Abdel Karim Abu Shanab, who headed the government office that inspects the collections of antiquities traders, was accused of taking bribes and supplying smugglers with certificates that said genuine antiquities were fakes. Under Egyptian law, only fake antiquities can be exported.
A total of 10 people were on trial in one of Egypt's biggest antiquity fraud cases. Three were acquitted.
According to court documents, Abu Shanab was sentenced to life imprisonment for stealing records from the Supreme Council of Antiquities and helping smuggle antiquities, and received a lighter sentence of 15 years for other charges to be served concurrently. A life sentence in Egypt equals 25 years.
Other defendants also received multiple sentences, in one instance adding up to 55 years, but will only stay in prison for the duration of the single longest sentence.
"This is injustice. I have done nothing," Abu Shanab said after the verdict. His lawyer said they would appeal.
The six other convicted defendants received sentences ranging from life imprisonment to 15 years in prison as well as fines.
Former antiquities official Salah Eddin Ramadan gasped with relief when he heard he was among three defendants found not guilty.
"I cannot pull myself together," he said, shaking in the caged dock. "Thank God. I know I'm innocent."
Zahi Hawass, the council's secretary general, praised the verdict.
"This is an important step toward protecting Egypt's antiquities from being looted by gangs," he said.
The accused were part of a group that officials believe has stolen about 57,000 artifacts from state warehouses and smuggled thousands of them abroad. Police found coins, statues and sarcophaguses in tunnels under the villas of three relatives _ businessmen who were convicted in an earlier trial. The cache allegedly included certificates signed by Abu Shanab.
Egypt has drastically stepped up efforts in recent years to stop trafficking of its antiquities. It has warned foreign museums that it will not help them mount exhibitions on the Pharaonic era unless they return smuggled artifacts.