Ownership of meteorite remains controversial

By Fan Junmei
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, February 5, 2013
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Whom does a meteorite belong to? It is a tough question for Chinese law makers.

The world's fourth largest iron meteorite was found in Aletai(Altay) Prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in July of 2011. The local government took it away under the excuse of "protection."

One year and a half later, the discoverers of the meteorite --Hailati Ayisa and Jiaerheng Habudehai, two guides of Kazak nationality -- decided to sue the government. Once filed, it could be the first case about ownership of articles from the space, the Southern Weekly reported. The contractors of the pasture, where the meteorite was found, also claimed its ownership, further complicating things.

Hailati is keen on the topic of meteorites.[Southern Weekly]

Hailati is keen on the topic of meteorites.[Southern Weekly]

All three parties claimed to have been the first discoverers of the iron meteorite. It won't be easy for the judicial authorities to issue a correct verdict as China’s civil law doesn't follow the "first possession" theory of property which states that ownership of something is warranted by someone claiming it before anyone else does so.

Hailati stems from Aletai’s Qinghe County, the place where China's largest iron meteorite "Silver Camel" was found. He was keen on the topic of meteorites and had become friends with sheep dealer Jiaerheng while conducting business.

In April 2011, Hailati received a call from another meteorite fan. The man told Hailati they were searching for a meteorite on an alpage in Aletai, and hoped he would be willing to join the search.

A team of nine meteorite afficionados then set out to find the rumored item from space. Zhang Baolin, a meteorite expert from the Beijing Planetarium, and meteorite collector Lei Kesi were among them. The search, however, proved to be without success. Before the nine men parted ways, they made a verbal agreement with Hailati and Jiaerheng to have them continue the search.

"Zhang Baolin said we were likely to receive a grand reward if we found it and informed the government," Hailati said. Living a run of the mill life, both Hailati and Jiaerheng considered the search to be a possibly fate-changing opportunity.

June 17 of 2011, turned out to be the day they found the meteorite. "It was a gift from the Lord, I thought our lives would be different," Jiaerheng told the Southern Weekly.

They immediately informed the remaining seven meteorite fans, but didn't receive any response. However, they did hear from the Beijing Planetarium a few days later that the man they informed had reported the discovery to the Chinese Academy of Sciences as its "first discoverer".

Experts from the Beijing Planetarium tried to ease their minds by saying "we know you two found it," and issued them a certificate shortly after.

On July 16 of 2011, the meteorite was officially confirmed as the world's fourth largest iron meteorite and was found to be a part of the same meteoroid as the "Silver Camel."

However, the local government removed the iron meteorite from the pasture as soon as possible, stating they just wanted to ensure better protection for the meteorite.

It also denied Hailati and Jiaerheng were the first discoverers of the iron meteorite, saying the then Party Secretary of Aletai Sun Jianguo had already spotted it back in 2004. But there was no proof to this claim. According to Zhang Min, lawyer for Hailati and Jiaerheng, there was no legal basis for any government to require, seize, or maintain meteorites.

As for their reward, the local government only agreed to give Hailati and Jiaerheng 5,000 yuan (US$802) each because of "their touching behavior." Nevertheless, both men deemed the reward insufficient and objected to the offer.

Meteorite collector Lei Kesi argued that "both the Beijing Planetarium and I had paid Hailati and Jiaerheng for their help." He thought they had been employed to help with the search, so they should not claim ownership. Hailati and Jiaerheng denied this particular relationship, but admitted having received a small sum from the Beijing Planetarium during their last search.

Yet then, out of the blue, pasture contractors Juman and Kenjiebieke Remazan now argued they in fact had discovered the iron meteorite as early as 1986 and so claimed its ownership as well.

According to China's land contracting system, contractors of pasture can only gain the rights and interests from the pasture itself, and as meteorites are not generated by the pasture, the Remazan brothers should not hold the meteorite, said Meng Qinguo, a law professor from Wuhan University.

In fact, some scientists had already proposed to legalize government's ownership of meteorites eight years ago but this project had somehow been paralyzed. Meteorite fan Liu Xin told the papers that it required plenty of time and money in order to find a meteorite,

"The discoverers will get hurt if their hard-to-find meteorites are simply taken away by the government."

On the international market, the price for iron meteorite stands around US$40 per gram. Liu Xin and Lei Kesi thus argued that once meteorites were nationalized, smuggling would be stimulated and it would be harder for research institutes to obtain the rocks.

"I hope the laws can encourage individuals to find more meteorites, and benefit both the country and discoverer," said Liu Xin.

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