Geologist Jim Fitton moved to Iraqi prison with ISIS inmates, say family

Court found the Briton guilty of trying to smuggle artefacts out of the country

Jim Fitton, left, and Volker Waldmann are escorted by Iraqi security forces outside a courtroom in Baghdad. AP
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A British geologist jailed in Iraq has been moved to the general prison population before his appeal has been heard, his family said.

Jim Fitton's family are worried for the 66-year-old's safety and fear he could be placed alongside ISIS inmates, as well as others who could be hostile to a British citizen.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has faced demands to “intervene at the highest level”.

Fitton was sentenced to 15 years in prison for smuggling antiquities he picked up during a guided tour of an ancient site in the country.

He is set to be moved from an airport detention cell to a prison several days earlier than expected, his family said.

An appeal is being prepared by Fitton’s legal team and they continue to argue he had no intention of smuggling the items.

Fitton collected 12 stones and shards of broken pottery as souvenirs while visiting a site in Eridu, south-eastern Iraq, as part of an organised geology and archaeology tour.

The items were found in the possession of Fitton and German tourist Volker Waldmann, who has since been cleared of wrongdoing, as their group prepared to fly out of Baghdad airport on March 20.

Their tour guide, 85-year-old Geoff Hann, who was a champion of Iraq's ancient culture, died under police guard.

Fitton missed his daughter Leila's wedding while he was awaiting sentence. She gave a tearful interview after his trial during which she spoke about their first conversation after the verdict.

Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, who represents Fitton’s family in Bath, said his move to a prison was "very concerning, so soon after Jim’s sentencing" and before an appeal was heard.

“I know Jim’s family must be worried sick and I am thinking of them and Jim today, as ever. The foreign secretary must now do what is right and intervene at the highest level," Ms Hobhouse said.

Fitton’s son-in-law. Sam Tasker, 27, said of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office: “The idea that they have basically abandoned Jim to his fate and are just sort of managing us as if we’re a problem to be solved rather than working with us to save the life of a British man in trouble abroad is just unbelievable, it blows me away.

“There’s no urgency about them whatsoever.”

He said the family hoped the appeal would enable the evidence to be reviewed and his father-in-law would be released.

Mr Tasker, who is married to Leila, 31, told PA: “We keep staying positive about things and things keep getting worse. Every few days something gets worse so it’s really, really hard to think positively about the appeal.

“We’re doing everything we can to push the appeal forward.”

He said it was initially expected that Fitton would be transferred to a general population prison next week, and it is unclear what contact they can have with him while he is held there.

“A general population prison in Iraq, there’ll be former Daesh members in there, there will be extremists, people who have been arrested from militia groups, fundamentalists, there’ll be people who fought against the British and American troops in the Iraq war," he said.

“All of these people are not going to take kindly to an elderly white British man, notwithstanding the treatment he’ll get from guards, prison officials and the general treatment of prisoners in Iraq – which I understand leaves a lot to be desired – but particularly from the inmates in the prison. We’re absolutely terrified about him being exposed to that.

“If the Foreign Office’s aim all along was just to avoid a death sentence, they shouldn’t be patting themselves on the back because he’s a 66-year-old man sentenced to 15 years in an Iraqi jail.

“If by some miracle he gets out of there, he’ll be 81 years old.”

Fitton, who lives in Malaysia with his wife Sarijah, spent the rest of a three to four-minute phone call with his family trying to make arrangements for them.

Ms Hobhouse said the lack of contact between a UK minister and the family was “nothing short of a disgrace”.

“The way this situation has unfolded has been absolutely shocking," she said.

"The Foreign Office has refused to intervene for months now. It is simply not fair on Jim or his family and sets a devastating precedent for British citizens in trouble abroad.

“Jim is not a criminal. He is a 66-year-old geologist who has been deserted by the British government.”

Updated: June 09, 2022, 12:13 PM