Briton Jim Fitton sentenced to 15 years for artefact smuggling in Iraq

German tourist Volker Waldmann was acquitted

Jim Fitton from Britain and Volker Waldmann from Germany outside a court in Baghdad, Iraq. Reuters
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A Baghdad court on Monday sentenced a British man to 15 years in prison for smuggling antiquities he picked up during a guided tour of the country’s ancient sites, a court official said.

A German tourist, Volker Waldmann, was acquitted. Mr Waldmann and Jim Fitton, a British geologist, were detained at Baghdad International Airport on March 20.

Officials said a search of their bags found shards, some as small as a fingernail, that had been collected at Eridu, an ancient Mesopotamian city in southern Iraq.

“I thought the worst-case scenario would be one year, with suspension,” Fitton’s lawyer Thair Soud, visibly shocked, told the Associated Press.

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

Picture from Fitton's lawyer Thair Saoud taken by his client showing the shards are scattered in the sites where he picked them up.

“The ruling was incorrect and very harsh,” Mr Soud told The National.

“The court didn't take into consideration his age, he's 66 and the facts that these pieces have no value, were left in the open, the Heritage and Antiquities Board's employees who accompanied them didn't warn him when he picked them up and his co-operation with the security forces at the airport,” he said.

Mr Waldmann's lawyer, Furat Kubba, said Fitton supported his client’s statement that he did not pick up the pieces from the site and was only carrying them for him.

“Therefore, the judge didn’t find any criminal intent and acquitted him,” Mr Kubba told The National.

The family said in a statement on a petition website that there had been no signs to suggest visitors were not allowed to collect fragments.

“These fragments were in the open, unguarded and with no signage warning against removal,” the petition read.

“Tour leaders also collected the shards as souvenirs at the site in Eridu. Tour members were told that this would not be an issue, as the broken shards had no economic or historical value.”

The petition for British authorities to intervene has more than 100,000 signatures.

Fitton's son-in-law Sam Tasker, 27, told PA news agency the verdict was "tantamount to a death sentence" and lambasted the UK Government for what he said was their "total lack of action in this case to date".

A photo of stones previously collected by Fitton on areas he has visited

"We are completely heartbroken that our own best efforts, a strong legal defence and constant campaigning, have led to this outcome," he said.

"We are disappointed, indeed stunned, at our own Government's total lack of action in this case to date," he added.

Fitton's local MP, Wera Hobhouse, called on the British foreign secretary to intervene.

The Liberal Democrat MP said: "The Foreign Secretary must make representations to the Iraqi government. This is yet another example of the British Government presiding over a case of a British national in trouble abroad and they have failed to take action."

Mr Soud said he intended to appeal the sentence immediately. It is not clear whether Fitton will be allowed to serve out his sentence in his home country. This would require a bilateral agreement between Iraq and the UK.

Tourism is on the rise in Iraq thanks to an improving security situation and a government decision to allow some nationalities to pick up visas on arrival.

They either come individually or in groups and can have guided tours of the country's ancient sites. Some of these sites are not guarded and many are littered with pottery pieces that have no historical or economic value.

According to Iraqi laws, possessing and trading in antiquities is illegal, regardless of their value, and the crime carries a maximum sentence of the death penalty.

The illicit theft and sale of antiquities has flourished in Iraq due to decades of war, social unrest and economic hardship.

In recent years, the government has acted to curb the practice, deploying security forces in and around major ancient sites nationwide and arresting dealers.

It has also stepped up cooperation with different countries and organisations around the world to retrieve stolen antiquities.

Last year, it welcomed back more than 17,000 looted ancient artefacts from the US alone, including a 3,500-year-old clay tablet that bears a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Hundreds of other items were also returned to Iraq from other countries, including 337 pieces held by the private Nabu Museum in Lebanon.

In April, about 100 returned paintings and sculptures — pillaged during the 2003 US invasion — were displayed at an exhibition in Baghdad.

Updated: June 06, 2022, 2:11 PM