April 2, 2019 / 8:59 PM / 16 days ago

Colombia court embargoes treasure from Spanish ship amid legal battle

BOGOTA, April 2 (Reuters) - A Colombian court on Tuesday ordered an embargo on the salvaging of a 300-year-old Spanish ship believed to be carrying jewels and coins due to a legal battle between the Andean country and a U.S. company that claims 50 percent ownership of the treasure.

Spain’s San Jose galleon, thought by historians to be carrying gold, silver and emeralds that would be worth billions of dollars today, sank in 1708 near Colombia’s Caribbean port of Cartagena. Its wreckage was located in 2015.

Sea Search Armada (SSA), a U.S.-based salvage company, says it located the area where the ship sank in 1982 and is entitled to half of anything found. Colombia says there is no wreckage at the site indicated by Sea Search.

The decision announced on Tuesday by the Superior Tribunal of Barranquilla is the latest in a long series of court battles over the treasure. It overturned a 2017 ruling and backed a 1994 one that had ordered an embargo on the treasure.

A 2007 ruling by the Colombian Supreme Court backed the government, saying SSA had no right to the treasure because their coordinates do not match the wreck’s location.

“Colombia will keep absolutely secret the coordinates where the shipwreck can be found and will not give up in the face of strategies to reveal this valuable information,” Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez told journalists.

Ramirez did not say whether the country would appeal the court’s decision.

Spain has also claimed the rights to what remains of the ship, arguing that it is a military vessel and therefore is still Spanish property under the terms of a United Nations treaty, of which Colombia is not a signatory.

Spain has also said that 570 of its citizens are contained within the wreck and should be respected.

The San Jose was part of the fleet of King Philip V and sank during a gun fight with an English fleet in the War of Spanish Succession. (Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; editing by Helen Murphy and Bill Berkrot)

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