Briton insists no criminal intent when smuggling Iraqi artefacts

Retired British geologist and a German tourist could be found guilty of offence that involves death penalty

Jim Fitton, left, and Volker Waldmann, centre, are handcuffed as they walk outside a courtroom in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, May 15, 2022. AP Photo
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A retired British geologist accused of smuggling artefacts from Iraq told a Baghdad court that he had no idea he was breaking the law.

Jim Fitton, 66, and German tourist Volker Waldmann told the court that they had not acted with criminal intent when collecting the ancient artefacts.

Mr Fitton took 12 stones and shards of pottery from a site in Eridu, south-eastern Iraq, while on an organised geology and archaeology tour.

The items were found in their possession as their group prepared to fly out of Baghdad on March 20.

A three-judge panel in Baghdad’s felony court scheduled a second hearing for May 22 and the court must determine whether the defendants had sought to profit by taking the items.

If convicted, both men could face the death penalty under Iraqi law, but it has been suggested that such an outcome is unlikely.

Mr Fitton said he “suspected” the items he collected were ancient fragments.

He told the court “at the time I didn’t know about Iraqi laws” or that taking the shards was not permitted.

Jim Fitton with his wife Sarijah. The accused's family is asking the British government to intervene in his case in an Iraqi court. AP Photo

The court heard Mr Fitton was in the habit of collecting such fragments as a hobby and had no intention to sell them given his background as a geologist.

But stressing it was not clear to him that picking them up from the site was a criminal offence, he said of the sites: “There were fences, no guards or signage.”

“These places, in name and by definition, are ancient sites,” head judge Jaber Abdel Jabir said.

“One doesn’t have to say it is forbidden.”

When Mr Fitton said some of the shards were “no larger than my fingernail”, the judge said: “Size doesn’t matter.”

Mr Waldmann said the two items found in his possession were not his and instead had been given to him by Mr Fitton to carry.

Foreign archaeologists from Foreign excavation missions work at discovered archaeological sites dating back to the Sumerian era, in the ancient city of Eridu near Nassiriya, Iraq March 10, 2022. Picture taken with a drone. Reuters

Mr Fitton lives in Malaysia with his wife Sarijah, while his daughter Leila Fitton, 31, and her husband Sam Tasker are based in Bath, Somerset.

Their petition calling for UK ministers to intervene to help free Mr Fitton has collected more than 271,000 signatures.

The case was also raised in the House of Commons during an urgent question session last week.

Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said the British ambassador in Iraq has raised the case four times with Iraqi authorities.

The defence plans to submit more evidence to clear the men, Mr Fitton’s defence lawyer Thair Soud told the Associated Press.

He said this includes evidence from government officials present at the site where the fragments were collected

“Their evidence is pending approval from their official directorates,” he told the news agency.

Updated: May 16, 2022, 12:02 PM