By Joseph Kolb
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Reuters) - Federal agents have arrested three people in a multi-state operation and accused them of dealing in bootleg Native American arts and crafts that were actually made in the Philippines and sold to tourists in New Mexico and California.
The indictment unsealed on Thursday charges Nael Ali, 51, and Mohammad Abed Manasra, 53, both of Albuquerque, and Christina Bowen, 41, of Los Lunas, New Mexico, with conspiracy to violate the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA). If convicted, they face a statutory maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The three are accused of conspiring to import and fraudulently sell items including jewelry as Native American-made, prosecutors said in a statement on Thursday.
Investigators executed 15 search warrants on Wednesday at jewelry stores in popular tourist spots such as Albuquerque's Old Town, the Plaza in Santa Fe and the towns of Zuni and Gallup in New Mexico and Calistoga, California.
The IACA prohibits the sale of items in a way that "falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian and Indian tribe," the U.S. Attorney's Office for New Mexico said in a statement.
It said three federal seizure warrants also were executed on bank accounts in Charlotte, North Carolina, and San Francisco and that Philippines state investigators conducted interviews at two factories in Cebu City, Philippines.
"The cultural heritage of American Indians is a precious national resource and it is critically important that we provide the proper respect to those whose creations are seen by some as simple retail commodities to be exploited for profit," U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez said in the statement.
The operation was hailed by Harvey Pratt, chairman of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, an agency in the U.S. Department of the Interior, who called it a landmark enforcement action.
"Eliminating the flow of counterfeit Native American art and craftwork provides a level playing field for the highly talented, dedicated, and hard-working producers of genuine Native American art," Pratt said in a statement.
"We must protect these authentic American Treasures."
It was not immediately clear if the three suspects have attorneys.
(Reporting by Joseph Kolb; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bill Trott)