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German court hands sentences to Dresden Green Vault suspects

May 16, 2023

Members of a criminal gang were accused of stealing priceless jewels from the Green Vault Museum in Dresden. It was dubbed the biggest art heist in modern history by German media.

The defendants in the trial of the jewel robbery in the Green Vault sit next to the lawyers in their seats
Four of the men admitted to taking part, while another confessed to helping plan the crimeImage: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa/picture alliance

The district court in the eastern German city of Dresden on Tuesday sentenced members of a criminal syndicate over the theft of priceless display items from one of Europe's largest collections of treasures.

The theft of artifacts from the Green Vault was one of the most spectacular heists in German history.

The court handed down several prison sentences — ranging from four years and four months to six years and three months — to five members of Berlin's Remmo organized crime family.

They were convicted of aggravated arson in combination with dangerous bodily injury, theft with weapons, damage to property, and intentional arson.

A sixth suspect, who had an alibi and pleaded not guilty to taking part, was acquitted.

The highest sentences were against Wissam R. (26) and Rabieh R. (29), who were given six years and three months and six years and two months in prison respectively.

Four of the six defendants had admitted to involvement in the crime as part of a plea bargain, and another confessed to helping procure objects for the raid. 

What happened in the break-in?

The theft saw two thieves break into the vault through a window at Dresden's Royal Palace at dawn on November 25, 2019. They smashed a display case and escaped with treasures dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

The team had carried out reconnaissance at the premises several times and took apart a section of cast-iron guttering in advance to be able to break in more easily later, prosecutors said.

They stole some 4,300 diamonds and other precious stones from 21 jewelry items which, despite being valued at some €113 million ($122 million), many view as priceless.

Estimators place the damage caused by the break-in alone at more than €1 million.

The men started a fire to cut the power supply to street lights outside the museum just before the break-in. They also set fire to a car in a nearby garage before making their getaway to Berlin.

The suspects were caught several months later in raids in Berlin.

A large part of the loot was returned to the state collections, partly damaged, after preliminary talks in the plea bargain. 

Prosecutors suspected from an early stage that members of the Remmo family, a notorious organized crime gang of Arab heritage known as a "clan" in German media, were behind the Green Vault heist. A court also found the family responsible for stealing a giant gold coin — weighing 100 kilograms (220 pounds) — from Berlin's Bode Museum in 2017.

What is the Green Vault?

The vault is within the Royal Palace of Dresden and is home to the treasures of the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland Augustus the Strong, who first placed his family dynasty's collection of Renaissance and baroque treasures on public display in the early 18th century.

It gets its name from the green-colored columns and green velvet wall coverings in many of the museum's rooms. 

The artifacts remained on display until World War II when three of the Green Vault's eight richly decorated exhibition rooms were destroyed during an Allied air raid on Dresden in February 1945.

Fortunately, portable exhibits had already been removed beforehand and stored for safekeeping at a fortress in the nearby Elbsandstein mountains.

The Dresden of Augustus the Strong

These items were seized by the Red Army Trophy Commission and shipped to the Soviet Union after the war and remained there until 1958 when Moscow passed a resolution providing for their return to Dresden.

Parts of the collection were placed on display in the city's Albertinum Museum because war damage made a return to the palace itself impossible.

It wasn't until more than half a century after the war that the world-famous treasures reclaimed their place at the Royal Palace in 2004 when 1,080 masterworks were placed on view.

Two years later, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel officially reopened the vault after a major multi-million-euro renovation.

Among the treasures on display are jewel-encrusted figurines, a ring that belonged to Protestant reformer Martin Luther, gold-mounted ostrich eggs, and rhinoceros-horn goblets.

rc/wd (AFP, dpa)