Briton faces death penalty in Iraq for ‘smuggling’ ancient pottery
A retired British geologist accused of smuggling artefacts suspected the items were ancient but had no idea he was breaking Iraqi laws, a court has heard. Jim Fitton, 66, and German tourist Volker Waldmann told judges they did not act with criminal intent when they appeared in Baghdad court on Sunday wearing yellow inmate uniforms.
A father-of-two, Fitton collected 12 stones and shards of broken pottery as souvenirs while visiting a site in Eridu, southeast Iraq, as part of an organized geology and dive tour. ‘archeology. The items were found in the couple’s possession as their group prepared to take off from Baghdad airport on March 20.
The three-judge panel at the Baghdad Criminal Court has scheduled a second hearing for May 22 and the court must determine whether the defendants sought to profit from the taking of the items. Both men could face the death penalty, under Iraqi law, but it has been suggested that such an outcome is unlikely.
Fitton said he “suspected” the items he collected were ancient fragments. But he told the court “at the time I didn’t know Iraqi laws” or that taking the fragments was not allowed.
The court heard that Fitton used to collect such fragments as a hobby and had no intention of selling them given his background as a geologist. But stressing that 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.
Chief Justice Jaber Abdel Jabir replied: “These places, in name and by definition, are ancient sites. It is not necessary to say that it is prohibited. When Fitton said some of the shards were ‘no bigger than my fingernail’, the CJ said that was irrelevant and noted, ‘Size doesn’t matter’.
Waldmann said the two items found in her possession were not hers and that Fitton had instead given her to carry. 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 on UK ministers to intervene to help free Fitton has garnered over 271,000 signatures. The matter was also raised in the House of Commons during an urgent question session last week.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the British ambassador to Iraq had raised the matter four times with Iraqi authorities. The defense plans to submit more evidence to exonerate the men, Fitton’s defense attorney, Thair Soud, told The Associated Press. He said this included evidence from government officials present at the site where the fragments were collected.
“(Their evidence) awaits approval from their official directions,” he told the news agency.