British geologist detained in Iraq accused of stealing historic artefacts, say family

Jim Fitton's family say he picked up the items after being told they had no historical value

Retired British geologist Jim Fitton with his wife, Sarijah, and his daughter, Leila. PA
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A retired British geologist is facing trial in Iraq after being accused of attempting to smuggle historic artefacts out of the country, his family said.

Jim Fitton, 66, who lives in Malaysia, was detained over smuggling allegations during a visit to the country for a geology and archaeology tour.

His children family have called on UK ministers to intervene to help “make a difference”.

They say in a petition launched to press the UK government to act: "Whilst on the tour, our father visited historical sites around Iraq, where his tour group found fragments of stones and shards of broken pottery in piles on the ground.

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

“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 statement urges the government to intervene, saying they have only “days to save him”, as it is believed Mr Fitton may go on trial the week commencing May 8.

“Our lawyer has drafted a proposal for cessation of the case and the immediate repatriation of our father, which requires the backing of the Foreign Office to put to the Iraqi judiciary.”

Retired British geologist Jim Fitton, pictured with his wife, Sarijah Fitton. He has been accused of attempting to smuggle historic artefacts out of Iraq, according to his family. PA

Sam Tasker, the husband of Mr Fitton's daughter Leila, said in a statement: “Jim would often bring home small souvenirs from his trips to remember the journey by and share his experiences with us.

“To him, this was no more significant than bringing home a small stone from the beach to remember a special family holiday. The items are widely agreed to be valueless.

“This is the offence that now sees my father-in-law facing a potential death sentence under Article 41 of the Iraqi artefacts law number 55 of 2002.”

Mr Tasker said Mr Fitton and a German man on the trip were arrested on March 20 after the group’s baggage was checked at the airport, with 12 shards said to have been recovered from his luggage.

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, has raised the case in the House of Commons and urged ministers to respond to the “incredibly serious” issue.

She said: “The situation surrounding Jim Fitton and his German counterpart is deeply worrying and my thoughts are with them and their families during this difficult period. It is impossible to imagine the concern and worry that Jim and his family are going through.

“From speaking with Jim’s family, it is clear that he would not intentionally disrespect or appropriate the rich and fascinating culture of the region.”

Ms Hobhouse said that she has written to the Foreign Office, been in touch with consulate support services and contacted the minister’s office directly, though she has yet to receive an encouraging response.

“Jim’s lawyer has advised that an intervention from the British government will make a difference in this case. That is why I am urging the government to intervene to make Jim’s release more likely,” she said.

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesman said the agency is providing “consular support to a British national in Iraq” and is in contact with local authorities”, though gave no further details.

Updated: April 29, 2022, 11:04 AM