Curse of ancient Babylon claims 13

Stolen idol: the theft of a gold statue has left a trail of murder and revealed a murky Middle-Eastern underworld
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The Independent Online
IT IS a golden Babylonian statue 50cm high and it has already caused the violent death of 13 people. It is said to be worth at least $1m and to have been stolen from the Iraqi museum in Baghdad and smuggled into Jordan.

The revelations about the statue and how its theft led to a spectacular string of murders in the Jordanian capital, Amman, follows the arrest of the killers after a gun battle with police late last month.

Jordanian police say that a quarrel over distribution of the profits from the sale of the statue in Europe led the smugglers, on 17 January, to stab to death Namir Ochi, an Iraqi businessman who was working with them. The smugglers also killed seven others who were in the same villa as Mr Ochi, including the Iraqi deputy ambassador to Jordan, Hikmat al- Hajou.

The second crime was equally savage and occurred three months later. According to leaks from the Jordanian security services, one of the eight killers suffered a nervous breakdown following the murders he helped carry out. He visited a prominent psychiatrist in Amman, Dr Awni Saad, to discuss his troubles.

The conscience-stricken murderer may not have revealed details of his crime, but other members of the gang did not want to take a chance. On 8 April they visited Dr Saad's clinic and shot him dead. Minutes later, Hanna Naddey, one of Jordan's leading lawyers and a legal adviser to King Hussein, arrived, apparently by chance, with his son to visit Dr Saad. They were also gunned down.

A week later, the gang carried out another murder, this time of a taxi driver who was one of their members. He was killed on 16 April and his body was left in the boot of a car in Wadi Sir in west Amman. Two weeks passed before it was discovered.

The breakthrough in the three cases came six weeks later. Police first arrested four suspects. One had Mr Naddey's credit card in his pocket. Then, accompanied by a special Jordanian army unit, led by Prince Abdullah, King Hussein's eldest son, they raided an apartment occupied by two men in the district of Sahhab, in south-east Amman, on 25 May. A gun battle followed. Three policemen were slightly wounded and one of the men in the apartment shot himself to death, according to a police statement.

The Jordanian government is reticent about details of the crimes for two reasons. It does not want to stress Iraqi involvement as this might anger Baghdad, with whom it has had cool relations recently.

After the murders in January, Jordan hinted at the involvement of Iraqi security forces. "The stabbing was carried out by professional murderers," said Dr Moumin al-Hadid, director of forensic medicine at the police department in Amman.

In the wake of last month's arrests, Abdullah Nsour, Jordan's deputy prime minister, said: "Investigations show there are no political motives behind the crime. The motives were financial." However, an Iraqi observer said he doubted if a treasure from the Iraqi Museum, which has been shut since 1990, could have been removed without the connivance of somebody in authority in Baghdad.

Jordan is also keen not to shake the confidence of foreign investors. Namir Ochi, the killers' first target, was from a well-known family of Chaldean Christians from Kirkuk in Iraq. He had limited private wealth and lived in Lebanon, but his brother Nazmi, a long-term resident of the UK, controls companies worth $1.2bn.

Nazmi is one of Jordan's largest private investors and King Hussein recently laid the foundation stone for a hotel complex in Amman being built by one of his companies. He stresses he has no business links with Baghdad.

Namir Ochi had never broken his links with Iraq, though in 1986 a third Ochi brother, Nasser, was executed for allegedly offering a bribe. General Muhi al-Din, head of Jordanian general security, says Namir owned a restaurant in Baghdad.

It was managed for him by Mohammed Omar Yusuf al-Jaghamin, a Palestinian born in Galilee, in what is now Israel, but with a Jordanian passport. General al-Din says Jaghamin was the leader of the gang which helped Namir Ochi smuggle antiques out of Iraq.

Iraq is one of the great archaeological treasure houses of the world. It was the site of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilisations. In 1990, in the expectation that the invasion of Kuwait would lead to war, the Iraqi Museum, in the heart of the capital, was closed.

Muwwayeed Saeed, director general of Iraq's Department of Antiquities, told The Independent at the time that he had put the treasures, such as the gold and jewellery from the royal cemetery at Ur (2450BC), into the vaults of the central bank.

Seven years later the museum has not reopened, but the Arabic daily Ashsharq al-Awsat cites Jordanian security forces as saying that objects it once had on display are being smuggled abroad and sold.

Although Jordan is keen to play down the gang's Iraqi connection, the smugglers were mostly Jordanian-Palestinians living in Baghdad. One had even served in the Iraqi army during the invasion of Kuwait.

They knew they were playing for high stakes: Iraq has executed people caught smuggling antiquities. They were being paid 10 per cent of the value of the goods they smuggled, but by the start of this year they had become convinced they were being short-changed by Namir Ochi.

At issue was the golden statue. According to police leaks, Namir told them he had sold it for $1m. They believed the real figure to be far higher. On 17 January they came to exact revenge at a luxury house in the Rabiya district of Amman owned by an Iraqi businessman, also a Christian, called Sami George, 63. He lived there with his Greek girlfriend Diotisios Lidaki, 57, who was the only survivor of the evening.

From the beginning, the smugglers demonstrated systematic ferocity. Sami George's red-tiled villa is isolated from other houses. Neighbours were unlikely to hear shouts and screams. In any case the killers used knives rather than guns.

First they knocked on the door. When it was answered by Mr George's Egyptian bodyguard they stabbed him to death along with an Egyptian friend.

Ms Lidaki says the killers tied up and gagged their victims. She says they spoke Arabic with Iraqi accents and were waiting for Namir Ochi. When he arrived, she said Ochi and the gang members "exchanged accusations, and the Iraqis said he owed them large sums of money. Ochi refused their demands, so they stabbed him and attacked all those present."

Ms Lidaki only survived because her throat was slashed rather than cut, and a knife thrust missed her heart. The murderers showed great calmness, in that they stayed in the villa with their victims for three hours, waiting for Namir Ochi to arrive. Just before they left, Hikmat al-Hajou, the Iraqi deputy ambassador, drove up with his Egyptian-born wife, Leila Shaaban. Their late-night arrival is not surprising as it was iftar, the feast which ends the daily fast during the Muslim month of Ramadan. The diplomat and his wife were also killed.

Attention first focused on the death of Mr Hajou, despite Ms Lidaki's evidence that the killers' quarrel was with Mr Ochi. It was assumed they had fled the country, most probably to Iraq. In reality the gang, which had at least eight members, never left Amman. They might have escaped had one of their members not sought psychiatric help from Dr Saad. Once again they were determined to leave no witnesses.

Mr Naddey, 75, a prominent businessman as well as a lawyer, and his son Suheil, 34, lost their lives because they saw Dr Saad's car outside his clinic and could not understand why he wouldn't answer when they rang the bell. When Mr Naddey told his son to call the police, the killers opened the door and shot both of them dead.

Six of the gang are now in prison in Jordan and two are dead. A seventh member, said by some to be the organiser of the smuggling operation, has escaped to Europe. Nobody knows the fate of the golden statue from Babylon, whose ability to ignite violence so resembles the story of the 1940s film The Maltese Falcon.

Archaeologists also want to know if somebody is systematically looting and smuggling abroad the treasures of the ancient civilisations of Iraq.