Middle East

British geologist jailed for 15 years in Iraq for smuggling artefacts

A British citizen has been sentenced by an Iraqi court to 15 years in prison on charges of smuggling artefacts out of the country, in a case that has attracted international attention.

The verdict handed down to Jim Fitton, a retired geologist, shocked the court in Baghdad, including his defence lawyer. He and his family have argued that Fitton, 66, had no criminal intent.

“I thought the worst-case scenario would be one year, with suspension,” said Fitton’s lawyer, Thair Soud.

A German national tried with Fitton was found not to have criminal intent in the case and will be released.

But Judge Jabir Abd Jabir found that by picking up the items, revealed to be artefacts older than 200 years according to a technical government investigation, and intending to transport them out of the country, Fitton had criminal intent to smuggle them.

The judge did not consider Soud’s arguments that laid out Fitton’s ignorance of Iraqi laws and the value of the items. Fitton and the German national, Volker Waldman, were arrested in Baghdad airport on 20 March after airport security discovered the items in their luggage. They had been part of a tourism expedition across the country’s ancient sites.

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Fitton’s family grew worried when he did not arrive on a scheduled flight back to Kuala Lumpur, where he lives with his wife. They later learned that Fitton, a well-travelled geologist for oil and gas companies, had been taken to an airport holding cell where he was still being detained, Fitton’s daughter Leila said last month.

The case garnered attention when, frustrated by perceived inaction on the part of the British Foreign Office to intervene and assist in Fitton’s case, his family started a petition that has more than 100,000 signatures. The British diplomatic mission in Baghdad has not commented on its involvement in the case.

Fitton’s family said that in total, 12 fragments of pottery and other shards were found in Fitton’s possession by Iraqi authorities, all of them collected as souvenirs during a group tourism expedition to Eridu, an ancient Mesopotamian site in what is now Dhi Qar province.

Waldman’s defense team said the German tourist had been carrying the pieces for Fitton but that he did not pick them up from the site. Both men were charged with smuggling based on the country’s antiquities laws and could have potentially faced the death penalty. However, officials said that was only a remote possibility.

Soud said he intented to appeal against sentence immediately. It is not clear if Fitton can serve out his sentence in his home country, which would require a bilateral agreement between Iraq and the UK.


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