British geologist Jim Fitton's imprisonment in Iraq caps disastrous end to tragic tour

Alongside the arrest of two travellers, the tour guide died while under police guard

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The trial of British citizen Jim Fitton and a German on charges of attempting to smuggle artefacts out of Iraq has grabbed international attention at a time when the country seeks to open up its nascent tourism sector.

It also caps the end of a disastrous tour which resulted in the death of its elderly leader, Geoff Hann, a man once called the world’s most extreme tour guide.

Dr Mehiyar Kathem, the author of a gloomy report about the state of Iraq’s conservation efforts, said Mr Hann was well-known in Iraq for bringing tour groups with his company Hinterland Travel, however difficult the circumstances.

“He was an amazing guy,” Dr Kathem said. “He was 85 and he kept being active, and arranging these tours.”

He said the recent case involving the two Europeans highlighted the need for Iraq to better protect its rich cultural heritage and to educate the people who visited about what they could and could not touch.

“A lot of sites are unprotected and are not really open to tourists,” Dr Kathem said. “If you go to places like Babylon, you can find broken cuneiform fragments all over sites.

“It is just really unfortunate it ended this way. Many things that could have gone wrong, went wrong.”

Jim Fitton, right, and Volker Waldman are handcuffed outside a courtroom in Baghdad, Iraq, on Monday. AP

The 15-year imprisonment sentence handed down to Fitton, 66, a retired geologist, shocked the court in Baghdad, including his defence lawyer.

Fitton and his family have argued that he had no criminal intent. He had collected 12 stones and shards of broken pottery during a recent geology and archaeology tour of the country.

Fitton said that as geologist, he was in the habit of collecting such fragments as a hobby and had no intention to sell them. A petition started by his family after they lost faith in the UK government's efforts to help has garnered more than 100,000 signatures.

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

Fitton and German citizen Volker Waldman — who was arrested at the same time but found not to have had criminal intent in the case and will be released — were arrested at Baghdad’s airport on March 20 after airport security discovered the items in their luggage.

They had collecting fragments of broken pottery from the historic site of Eridu, south-east Iraq, which they said were “mementoes”.

Tragic tour

They had been part of a tourism expedition around the country’s ancient sites, which ended in tragedy.

Their tour guide, Geoff Hann, also a British citizen who was in his 80s and in poor health, died in police custody for reasons unrelated to his detention.

He was found with more than 20 archaeological fragments in his possession.

Mr Hann had treated war, sanctions, terrorism and a global pandemic as minor hurdles in a mission to share his passion for the ancient history of modern Iraq.

He took a party to the country during the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq, and was one of the first to take tourists to survey the destruction wreaked by ISIS in Mosul.

The Briton was there after western governments imposed sanctions on the regime of Saddam Hussein and when the Covid-19 travel bans were finally lifted.

But at the age of 85, a final tour of the riches of the nation proved one trip too far for Mr Hann, who died last month in a Baghdad hospital after failing to recover from a stroke.

Geoff Hann in Iraq. Photo: Raad Al Qassimi

Champion of Iraqi culture

The champion of the country’s ancient culture died under police guard. It was a desperate end to a life of remarkable adventure.

His family said he would have been horrified to learn that members of his tour were accused of smuggling.

Other members of the group had already left but the pair offered to stay behind to look after the stricken Mr Hann, who was taken to hospital after being deemed too unfit to fly, Mr Fitton’s family said.

They said his life was dedicated to preventing looting of historic sites.

Despite travelling to some of the world’s hottest trouble-spots, Mr Hann felt the responsibility to his customers keenly.

“He was very protective and caring of the people he took,” said Karen Dabrowska, his former collaborator on respected guidebooks on Iraq.

“He was taking people them to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, contrary to [UK] Foreign Office advice. I don’t think the Foreign Office loved him but he never put people at risk.

“He had very good people on the ground who could tell him about the dangers and they never really had any mishaps in Iraq.”

Mr Hann's powers of protection were sorely tested during a trip he led to Afghanistan in 2016.

The group was fired on by the Taliban and their tour bus was set on fire, injuring him and five holidaymakers.

Despite telling the Mirror that members of the tour party could “dine out on that story for years”, Mr Hann was badly affected by the incident, his family says.

“It really disturbed him”, said his daughter, Louise Woffenden. “He came back and he obviously had some physical wounds as well. It was very difficult.”

Because of the nature of his trips, Mr Hann was always conscious of the personal dangers he faced.

“I always spoke to him before every trip,” Ms Woffenden said. “We always said we loved each other. Our goodbyes have already been said.”

His passion for Iraq and for travel was undeniable. He started his tour company in the 1970s, inspired by a trip he took in a camper van to India with his two daughters.

His company, Hann Overland, ran trips to Kathmandu but he later came to specialise in the Middle East and countries with rich histories but hid hard by modern strife.

Mr Hann was a pioneer in organising travel to places that were difficult to reach independently, said James Willcox, the founder of Untamed Borders, a company organising similar trips to the region.

“If people wanted to get to Iraq and see things, he was the man to do it for a long time,” he said.

Mr Hann was a meticulous researcher and an acknowledged expert on Iraq.

Before the 2003 invasion, the US Pentagon ordered copies of his guide to Iraq to try to avoid destroying 6,000-year-old treasures from the cradle of civilisation, said Ms Dabrowska.

“I don’t think he got a thrill from danger,” she said. “He wanted to take people to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and gave two fingers to Saddam and two fingers to the Taliban.

“He’d say these stories are more than them. 'The Tigris and Euphrates were there before we came and will be there after we’ve gone', he’d say.”

An Iraqi guide who worked with Mr Hann for 20 years said that he explained his subject with enthusiasm and verve.

“Geoff is an Iraq icon,” said Raad Al Qassimi. “Everywhere he had friends. He loved Iraq and Iraqi people loved him. Unfortunately, we’ve lost him.”

Family to fight for freedom

Fitton's have said they are “shattered” and “heartbroken” by the news he has been jailed and vowed to keep fighting for his freedom.

Son-in-law Sam Tasker, 27, told PA news agency the verdict was “tantamount to a death sentence”.

He also lambasted the UK government for what he said was their “total lack of action in this case to date”.

“We are absolutely shattered by this news. For a man of Jim's age, 15 years in an Iraqi prison is tantamount to a death sentence,” Mr Tasker said.

“Particularly for such a trivial and dubious crime, a crime that Jim was not even aware of when he perpetrated it.

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

“We are disappointed, indeed stunned, at our own government's total lack of action in this case to date.

“We are raising an appeal and will continue to fight for Jim's freedom, and urge the government to support us in every way possible and to open lines of communication with us at a senior level.”

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, said: “This is clearly a devastating outcome for Jim and his family.

“There is now no other option but for the Foreign Secretary to intervene at a ministerial level. 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.”

Fitton missed his daughter’s wedding in Malaysia, which took place in early May. Leila said at the time she was “heartbroken” by his absence.

Her hope for her father’s return home has been a near-daily fixture on her social media. Nineteen hours before Fitton was sentence, she posted a photo of her parents to mark their wedding anniversary.

In another, at a family hiking trip, she wrote she hoped her father would be able to join them on the next venture.

Based on Iraqi law, both men could have faced the death penalty, an outcome that legal experts said from the beginning was unlikely.

Updated: June 07, 2022, 10:38 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS
MORE FROM THE NATIONAL