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    Chinese Tomb Raiders Given Years Behind Bars for Stealing World Heritage Relics

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    Seven people involved in the theft of two relics from China’s famed Ming Tombs in April 2016 have been sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, local media reported Tuesday.

    The Ming Tombs are a collection of mausoleums near Beijing where 13 emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) were buried. The buildings are considered United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites. 

    The defendants were found guilty of stealing two relics, each about 1 meter tall, which were originally housed in front of the tomb of the Chongzhen Emperor, the 17th and last emperor of the Ming dynasty in China, the Beijing Youth daily reported Tuesday. Chongzhen reigned from 1627 to 1644. The relics were reportedly part of a set used for ritual sacrifices.

    Although there were security guards overseeing the compound, management officials there only noticed that the artifacts were missing after they'd been gone two months. No alarms went off at the time of the theft and it was later discovered that surveillance cameras covering the area were not working at the time.

    "China's efforts to build its museum industry have, in many cases, outpaced its professionalization of the field itself," Alicia Akins, former program director at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center in Luang Prabang, Laos, told Sputnik Tuesday. "The proliferation of museums throughout the country demonstrates a huge investment in infrastructure but cases like these, where there are replicas or fakes in museums and zoos or where security is lax are all too common." 

    "That's not to say that no progress has been made, just that the issues around securing objects or the experience of the visitor are often secondary considerations," the international heritage specialist added.

    According to local media, the thieves sold both artifacts to a dealer in Beijing's Fangshan district for $13,500, who then to sold them to another buyer in Huairou district for around $22,600.

    None of the defendants had any direct contacts or links to the Ming Tombs, the South China Morning Post reported Tuesday. However, they were also found guilty of stealing protected artifacts from other ancient temples and historic sites across Beijing.

    Last year, four Chinese men who were digging a shaft into a Song dynasty (960 to 1279) tomb in the city of Zunyi, in northern Guizhou province, died after breathing toxic fumes generated by their equipment underground, the South China Morning Post reported last year.

    The men used a fuel generator to power machinery that was used to disintegrate rocks underground to access the tomb. They covered the shaft entrance with quilts to prevent others from hearing the noise from the machinery, which resulted in the deadly buildup of fumes.

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