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British geologist sentenced to 15 years for smuggling Iraqi artefacts

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Jim Fitton (left) was arrested in Baghdad airport on March 20. Photo: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Jim Fitton (left) was arrested in Baghdad airport on March 20. Photo: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Jim Fitton (left) was arrested in Baghdad airport on March 20. Photo: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

A British citizen was sentenced to 15 years in prison by an Iraqi court yesterday after being convicted of attempting to smuggle artefacts out of the country, in a case that has attracted international attention.

The verdict handed down to retired geologist Jim Fitton, shocked the court in Baghdad, including his defence lawyer. He and his family have argued that Fitton, 66, had no criminal intent. “I thought the worst case scenario would be one year, with suspension,” said Fitton’s lawyer Thair Soud.

A German national tried with Fitton was found not to have had 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 artefacts that he had picked up and intended to transport them out of the country.

The trial has grabbed attention at a time when Iraq seeks to open up its nascent tourism sector. The two men first appeared in court on May 15 wearing yellow detainees’ uniforms, telling judges they had not acted with criminal intent and had no idea they might have broken local laws.

Fitton said he “suspected” the items he collected were ancient fragments, but that “at the time I didn’t know about Iraqi laws”, or that taking the shards was not permitted. Fitton said as a geologist he was in the habit of collecting such fragments as a hobby and had no intention to sell them. 

The judge, however, did not consider the lawyer’s arguments that laid out Fitton’s ignorance of Iraqi laws and the value of the items he picked up. Fitton and the German national, Volker Waldman, were arrested at Baghdad’s airport on March 20 after airport security discovered the items in their luggage. They had been part of a tourism expedition around the country’s ancient sites.

Their tour guide, also a British citizen who was 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. 

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