Envoy raises death penalty concerns with Iraq over British archaeologist facing trial

Family say Jim Fitton collected stones and pottery from archaeological site as souvenirs

Jim Fiittin with his wife Sarijah. AP
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The British ambassador has raised with Iraq fears that a British man arrested on charges of stealing ancient artefacts could be sentenced to death.

Jim Fitton's family says he did take stones but so did archaeology tour group leaders. He has been detained in Iraq for more than six weeks.

Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly revealed the ambassador’s diplomatic move. He defended the UK’s response to the case and said a meeting had taken place between government officials and Mr Fitton’s family.

“We cannot interfere or seek to interfere with the judicial process of another country, just as we would not expect interference in our own judicial process,” he said.

“That said, the British ambassador in Baghdad has raised and will continue to raise Mr Fitton’s case with the Iraqi Government and this includes raising with the authorities the UK’s very strong opposition to the death penalty, both in terms of its potential application to Mr Fitton and also our in principle opposition to the death penalty in all instances.”

The family of Mr Fitton, 66, who lives in Malaysia, said he collected stones and shards of broken pottery as souvenirs while visiting an archaeological site in Eridu, south-east Iraq, as part of an organised tour.

They want ministers to persuade the Iraqi authorities to accept a proposal to close the case before the trial begins.

Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse represents Mr Fitton’s family, who live in Bath, Somerset. She said: “They are refusing to take the steps needed that will help to secure Jim’s safety.”

Ms Hobhouse, who secured an urgent question in the House of Commons, said she was “deeply concerned” at the Foreign Office’s level of engagement in the case.

“We are told that the government won’t be making the crucial representations to the Iraqi government. It is my understanding that the German government is making representations on behalf of one of their constituents detained with Jim. Why won’t the Foreign Office do the same?” Ms Hobhouse said.

“Jim Fitton is potentially facing the death penalty. I urge the minister to do everything they can do to stop this nightmare before it turns into a tragedy.”

Mr Cleverly said he “completely rejected” Ms Hobhouse’s criticisms and said consular officials had visited Mr Fitton four times and the ambassador had raised the matter on four occasions with the Iraqi authorities, while the embassy has also sent a note.

Petition: 'Tour leaders also collected shards as souvenirs'

A petition raised by Mr Fitton's family calling for UK ministers to intervene has also collected more than 250,000 signatures.

“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,” it reads.

“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.”

Updated: May 11, 2022, 2:55 PM