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Iraq: British man jailed for 15 years over antiquities smuggling

Another detained German man was freed as 66-year-old Jim Fitton narrowly avoids death penalty
Jim Fitton (left), from Britain, and Volker Waldmann, from Germany, outside a court in Baghdad, Iraq, 22 May 2022 (Reuters)

A 66-year-old British man has been sentenced to 15 years in jail by an Iraqi court over accusations of involvement in smuggling antiquities.

Jim Fitton, a geologist, risked the death penalty, the harshest possible punishment for the crime, but received a lesser sentence owing to what a judge called the "advanced age of the accused".

The court found "insufficient evidence" to convict co-accused Volker Waldmann, a 60-year-old German citizen who was part of the same tour group visiting Iraq as Fitton.

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Fitton's lawyer called the judgement "extreme" and said he would be appealing the sentence.

The arrest of the two men at Baghdad airport in March has provoked outcry from their families and friends who repeatedly stressed that the men did not know that what they were doing was illegal.

The two men were charged under a 2002 law against "intentionally taking or trying to take out of Iraq an antiquity", an issue which is incredibly sensitive in the frequently looted country.

Customs officers and witnesses, said Fitton's baggage had contained about a dozen stone fragments, pieces of pottery or ceramics when it was examined.

Waldmann, a psychologist, denied that two pieces allegedly held in his possession belonged to him at the trial's opening on 15 May.

Speaking in court, Fitton claimed that he did not realise taking the fragments "was against the law", pointing out that there was nothing preventing him from doing so and no signs warning against it.

However, the judge dismissed this, saying that Fitton was aware that he had been at an "archaelogical site" and that it was illegal to take artefacts.

In a statement, Fitton's family said they were "heartbroken" by the sentence and called on the British government to intervene, arguing that 15 years in prison was "tantamount to a death sentence" for a man of his age.

The British government has repeatedly stated that it is not willing to get involved in the case.

The UK Foreign Office told Middle East Eye in April that the UK "cannot interfere in the legal systems of other countries, just as we would not expect them to interfere in ours", while stressing their opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances.

Left to his fate

The two men were arrested at the end of a tour organised by Geoff Hann, an 85-year-old British tour guide leader who himself had a stroke at the end of the trip, was hospitalised, contracted Covid-19 and died on 22 April 2022 in Baghdad’s al-Yarmouk hospital, where he had been confined for the preceding month.

The Iraqi courts issued an order forbidding Hann from leaving the country before being questioned, despite the stroke leaving him partially paralysed, unable to speak and most probably cognitively impaired.

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Although for most of his month-long hospitalisation Hann was only wanted for questioning, it is understood that he was placed under arrest the day before he died.

Speaking to MEE in April, Fitton's daughter Leila Louise Fitton said her father had been let down by both Hann's Hinterland Travel company and the British government.

Leila said that her father believed that Hann's deteriorating health had been a factor in why security protocols had slipped during the tour. 

She said tour leaders actively collected the same shards of pottery and stones as souvenirs and were told it would not be an issue leaving Iraq as the shards "had no economic or historical value”.

"Whilst we want to be clear that we wish no ill to the staff of Hinterlands Tours, intend no legal action, and have nothing but sympathy for the sad passing of Geoff Hann, we feel that our family has been let down," she said.

"Interviews and comment given by Hinterlands Tours staff who were not present on the trip have given the impression that my father was in some way responsible for the situation faced by Geoff Hann, and that he and the German citizen were somehow involved in premeditated criminal enterprise - nothing could be further from the truth as I believe we’ve made abundantly clear."

She also heavily criticised the slow response from UK officials and their unwillingness to become involved in her father's legal situation.

"We have had more engagement from the Malaysian government - my father is not even a citizen of that country - than we have from the British," said Leila. Fitton's wife is Malaysian.

"They are content, it seems, to leave him to his fate unless we can convince them to change their approach."