Judge Puts Kibosh on Dinosaur Forfeiture

     MANHATTAN (CN) – A Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton will stay put, for now, because prosecutors have not proven that it was smuggled, a federal judge ruled.
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     The Tyrannosaurus Bataar, also known as a Tarbosaurus, lived around 70 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period.
     In 1946, a joint Soviet-Mongolian mission discovered the species in the Gobi Desert, and a nearly complete skeleton made its way to Texas for auction two years ago, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
     After the Dallas-based Heritage Auctions sold it in May 2000 for roughly $1.05 million, Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia quickly filed suit .
     A Texas state judge granted a restraining order stopping transfer of the skeleton, and federal prosecutors filed a forfeiture action in the Southern District of New York weeks later to ship the dinosaur to Mongolia.
     Though U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel signed a warrant based on the allegations in June, he stayed that order Friday after finding that the government’s assumptions have been called into question.
     To support their smuggling claims, prosecutors maintained that the bones flew into the United States through false customs documents that identified its country of origin as Great Britain and understated their value at $15,000.
     But paleontologist Eric Prokopi, who sold the bones and filed a claim against the forfeiture, says that the truth is much more complicated.
     “The $15,000 figure (or $19,000 as stated by claimant’s counsel) appears to have been the valuation for one of four shipments into the United States of dinosaur bones some of which were encased in non-organic material and required extensive and difficult cleaning,” the order states.
     Prokopi claims his cleaning and assembling of the shipments “greatly enhanced” their value.
     “There is also a serious question of whether the government has alleged sufficiently detailed facts supporting a reasonable belief that the defendant property originated in the nation of Mongolia and was removed in violation of Mongolian law,” the order states. “The Bataar is said to be native to Nemegt Basin in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. The Nemegt Basin is in the Ömnögovi province of Mongolia, which borders with China. There is nothing before this Court which speaks to whether 70 million years ago it would have been implausible for the Bataar to have roamed the bordering territory, including present-day China, or whether geological formations in China (or other nearby nations) would have been conducive to preservation of such skeletons. The government represented that, thus far, substantially complete skeletons of Bataars have not been found outside of Mongolia but did not dispute claimant’s counsel’s representation that bones of Bataars – less than a full skeleton – have been found elsewhere.”
     Even if the bones were stolen, the government has not proven that the importer knew that, Castel added.
     Prosecutors must amend their complaint by Sept. 21, if they choose to pursue the case.
     If an amended complaint is filed, the claimant will either answer it or move to dismiss the forfeiture action in early October.

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