Pakistan is world exporter of smuggled Buddhist relics

AFP, August 10, 2012

Charsadda, Pakistan -- When a Pakistani family dispute over land degenerated into cold-blooded murder, Zaman Khan was quickly in over his head.

As cousins killed cousins, he borrowed more than $18,500 to buy guns, ammunition and guards. But soon debtors were demanding repayment, leaving him so depressed he contemplated suicide.

Then a friend came up with an idea. He took Khan to a site in northwest Pakistan which dates back to the ancient Gandhara civilisation where they dug up 18 pieces of statue, selling them to market traders for $20,700.

After two more visits, Khan - names changed - had found enough statues, coins and ornaments to not only settle his debts but also bankroll his feud.

Thirty years on, he presides over a lucrative trade in illegally excavated treasures, smuggled to Thailand, Europe and America as part of Pakistan’s sophisticated underworld business in archaeological remains.

“I can fight against my enemies and my friends’ enemies now. I’ve earned millions from this business,” he said.

Pakistan is home to two ancient civilisations, the Indus and the Gandhara whose artefacts are highly prized. Statues of the Buddha, can fetch thousands of dollars across the world.

“Whenever I’m on a digging mission, I pay $100 to the police station as a bribe in advance and $10 a day while the work continues,” said Khan, who is into this business for 20 years.

He sells the artefacts to dealers in the main northwestern city of Peshawar who later sell them to dealers in Islamabad and other cities from where they are exported to Thailand.

“Ladies are used to smuggle it from Peshawar to Islamabad, as they aren’t usually checked by police at the security posts.”

“At a minimum I’ve sold 20 big Buddha statues (weighing 40 to 80 kilograms). Each piece sold for around $20,000,” said Javed.

Customs officials say they have cracked down on the smugglers. “The whole system is computerised now and the chances of corruption are rare,” said Riffat Shaheen Qazi, a customs spokeswoman. “Some individuals might be involved in smuggling artefacts but we’re trying to curb this menace.”