Iraq set to free British man convicted of smuggling artefacts, says lawyer

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Iraq set to free British man convicted of smuggling artefacts, says lawyer

Jim Fitton was sentenced to 15 years in prison in June after being accused of taking fragments from a historical site in the country

Alex MacDonald

Tue, 07/26/2022 – 15:58

James Fitton, 66, a retired British geologist (L) and Volker Waldmann, 60, a Berlin psychologist, are dressed in the yellow uniform of detainees as they arrive at a courthouse in the Iraqi capital Baghdad (AFP)

Iraq is set to free a 66-year-old British man who had been imprisoned over allegations of antiquities smuggling in the country, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

Jim Fitton, a geologist, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in June under a 2002 law against “intentionally taking or trying to take out of Iraq an antiquity”, an issue that is incredibly sensitive in a country where artefacts are frequently looted.

His imprisonment had provoked an outcry in the UK, with Fitton and his family both saying that he had not realised that it had been illegal to take fragments from a historic site in the country.

His lawyer Thaer Saoud told AFP on Tuesday that Fitton’s conviction had been overturned by the Court of Cassation and his client would “soon be free”.

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Saoud posted the ruling from the court on his Facebook page, which said there had been no “criminal intent” on the part of Fitton and that his conviction was being overturned for lack of evidence.

In a statement sent to Middle East Eye, Fitton’s son-in-law said that while it was “great news” his family were still waiting to see how soon he would actually be released.

“Whilst myself, Leila, Josh, Sarijah and the wider family are over the moon about this development, we still have no idea what the timeline looks like and do not want to do any formal interviews until Jim is safely home with us,” said Sam Tasker.

“As with the appeal process over the past month, we have chosen a cautious silence for fear of inflaming tensions in Iraq.”

We are extremely grateful for the support of our lawyer, embassy staff and our MP’s office while we have fought this verdict, and greatly appreciate the decision of the appeals court to completely overturn the verdict and fully recognise Jim’s innocence.

Fitton was arrested at Baghdad airport in March, along with a German man, Volker Waldmann, who was acquitted of the same charges.

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.

Fitton had claimed in court 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.

A long ordeal

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 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 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.”

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.”

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