A British national was sentenced to 15 years in prison by an Iraqi court on Monday after being found guilty of attempted smuggling of artifacts out of the country in a case that has attracted international attention.
The ruling by retired geologist Jim Fitton shocked the Baghdad court, including his defense attorney. He and his family have argued that Fitton, 66, had no criminal intentions.
“I thought the worst-case scenario would be a year’s suspension,” Fitton’s attorney, Thair Soud, told The Associated Press.
Soud said Fitton will appeal the verdict.
A German national who was on trial with Fitton had no criminal intent in the case and will be released.
Judge Jabir Abd Jabir found that according to a government investigation, Fitton had criminal intent in smuggling the artifacts he had seized and transporting them out of the country.
The process has attracted international attention at a time when Iraq is trying to open up its burgeoning tourism sector.
The two men first appeared in court on May 15 wearing yellow prison uniforms and told the judges they had not acted with criminal intent and had no idea they might have broken local laws.
Fitton said he “suspects” that the items he collected were ancient fragments, but that “I didn’t know anything about Iraqi law at the time” or that taking the shards was not allowed. Fitton said as a geologist he was in the habit of collecting such fragments as a hobby and had no intention of selling them.
In his defence, Soud said Fitton waited weeks in custody before hiring him as his legal counsel, arguing that this suggested the Briton had no idea of the gravity of the case or the value of the goods found in his possession .
However, the judge did not consider Soud’s arguments, which exposed Fitton’s ignorance of Iraqi laws and the value of the items he took with him. Fitton and German national Volker Waldman were arrested at Baghdad airport on March 20 after airport security discovered the items in their luggage. They had been part of a tourism expedition to the country’s ancient sites.
Their tour guide, also a British citizen, in his 80s and in poor health, died in police custody for reasons unrelated to his detention. He was found with over 20 archaeological fragments in this possession.
Fitton’s family became concerned when he failed to catch a scheduled flight back to Kuala Lumpur, where he lives with his wife, on March 20. They later learned that Fitton, a well-travelled geologist for oil and gas companies, had been taken to an airport cell where he is still being held, Fitton’s daughter Leila told AP last month.
Frustrated by the UK Foreign Office’s apparent inaction to step in and help Fitton’s case, his family launched a petition which has garnered over 100,000 signatures. The British diplomatic mission in Baghdad has not commented on its involvement in the case, and the British consul in Iraq, who attended the court hearing on Monday, left the court without comment after the sentencing.
A total of 12 pottery fragments and other shards were found in Fitton’s belongings by Iraqi authorities, all collected as souvenirs, Fitton’s family says, during a group tour to Eridu, an ancient Mesopotamian site in modern-day Dhi Qar province. The site is said to be among the oldest sites of this civilization.
However, controversy remains over the items Fitton had picked up.
A report by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture indicated that they were over 200 years old, with no further details of their origin. But any object less than 1,500 years old disqualifies it from being of antiquity, a period from the dawn of western civilization to around AD 450
The trial has also divided public opinion in Iraq.
Some believe the punishment is just, saying Iraq has long been a plundering ground for invaders and foreigners with impunity. Others said Iraq lacked proper site management to educate tourists about the laws.
“Eridu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Iraq and requires a better site management plan,” said Ali Makhzomy, founder of BilWeekend, a travel company. “The Iraqi government is responsible for that.”
The items were not shown in court. Amir Abdul Razaq, an archaeologist in southern Nassriyah province, said he believes the items in Fitton’s possession date back to 1,800 BC. after AP shared images of the shards shared by his family. Government officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Waldman’s defense team said the German tourist carried two pieces for Fitton but did not pick them up from the site. Both men were charged with smuggling under the country’s antiquities laws and could have faced the death penalty. However, officials had said it was only a remote possibility.
It was not clear if Fitton would be able to serve his sentence in his home country. In 2017, Iraq signed a prisoner exchange agreement with Britain