Briton sentenced to 15 years in prison in Iraq for smuggling items

Briton sentenced to 15 years in prison in Iraq for smuggling items

A British citizen was sentenced by an Iraqi court to 15 years in prison on Monday after being found guilty of trying to smuggle artefacts out of the country, in a case that has drawn international attention.

The verdict handed down to retired geologist Jim Fitton shocked the Baghdad court, including his lawyer. He and his family argued Fitton, 66, had no criminal intent.

“I thought the worst-case scenario would be a year, with suspension,” Fitton’s attorney, Thair Soud, told The Associated Press in a visibly shocked state.

Soud said Fitton would appeal the verdict.

A German national tried with Fitton had no criminal intent in the case and will be released.

Judge Jabir Abd Jabir found that, according to the government’s investigation, Fitton had criminal intent to smuggle the artifacts he picked up and intended to transport them out of the country.

The lawsuit has drawn international attention at a time when Iraq is seeking to open up its nascent tourism sector.

The two men first appeared in court on May 15, dressed in yellow prison uniforms, telling judges they had not acted with criminal intent and had no idea that they could have broken local laws.

Fitton said he “suspected” the items he collected were ancient fragments, but that “at the time I did not know Iraqi laws”, or that taking the fragments was not authorized. Fitton said that as a geologist he used to collect 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 legal adviser, arguing it shows the Brit had no idea of ​​the seriousness of the case or the value of the property found. in his possession.

The judge, however, did not consider Soud’s arguments which exposed Fitton’s ignorance of Iraqi laws and the value of the items he had picked up. 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 tourist expedition around the ancient sites of the country.

Their tour guide, also an octogenarian British citizen 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.

Fitton’s family became concerned when he failed to arrive on a scheduled flight to Kuala Lumpur, where he is staying with his wife, on March 20. They later learned that Fitton, a geologist who had traveled extensively for oil and gas companies, had been taken to an airport holding cell where he was still being held, Fitton’s daughter, Leila, told AFP. AP last month.

Frustrated by the perceived inaction on the part of the British Foreign Office to intervene and help in Fitton’s case, his family launched a petition which 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 hearing on Monday, left after the sentencing without comment.

A total of 12 pottery fragments and other shards were found in Fitton’s possession by Iraqi authorities, all collected as souvenirs, according to Fitton’s family, during a group tourist expedition to Eridu, an ancient Mesopotamian site. in the current province of Dhi Qar. The site is considered one of the oldest sites belonging to this civilization.

Controversy, however, remains over the items Fitton had picked up.

A report from the Iraqi Ministry of Culture said they were over 200 years old, without giving any further explanation of where they came from. But anything less than 1,500 years old disqualifies it from antiquity, a period from the beginnings of Western civilization to around AD 450.

The trial also divided Iraqi public opinion.

Some consider the punishment just, saying Iraq has long been a looting ground for invaders and foreigners with impunity. Others said Iraq lacked proper site management to inform tourists about the laws.

“Eridu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Iraq and this requires a better site management plan,” said Ali Makhzomy, the founder of BilWeekend, a tour company. “It is the responsibility of the Iraqi government to do so.”

The objects were not presented in court. Amir Abdul Razaq, an archaeologist from the southern province of Nassriyah, said he believed 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 immediately be reached for comment.

Waldman’s defense team said the German tourist was carrying two pieces for Fitton but did not retrieve them from the site. Both men were charged with smuggling under the country’s antiquities laws and could potentially have faced the death penalty. However, officials had said that was only a remote possibility.

It was unclear whether Fitton could serve his sentence in his home country. In 2017, Iraq signed a prisoner exchange agreement with the United Kingdom.

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