British Geologist Gets Ridiculous 15-year Prison Sentence in Iraq
In a legal case that has been unfolding in Iraq since the last week of March, the arrest of a retired British geologist has the seismic potential to rock diplomatic relations. When Jim Fitton was arrested at customs over 2 months ago with 12 so-called “heritage artifacts,” the charge was smuggling. And soon shocking reports emerged that the Iraqi government was considering the death penalty for the retired British geologist, who was on holiday in Iraq. The Saddam-era laws, draconian to say the least, have resulted in Jim Fitton, 66, being dealt a 15-year jail sentence by an Iraqi judge, reports The Guardian .
A Retired British Geologist Smuggling Antiquities? Really?
Accused of “ smuggling” pieces of ancient pottery from a trip to Eridu, a Sumerian archaeological site dating back to 5400 BC in south Iraq, Fitton was detained at the Baghdad airport in late March 2022. Artnet News quoted his family as saying that Fitton was told by local guides that the fragments he had collected were worthless and had no economic or cultural value. To rub salt on the wound, a representative from the Iraqi Culture Ministry was allegedly part of the tour and granted the group permission to remove the objects.
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What made it even worse for the family was the British government’s purported inaction in helping the poor man, according to the Guardian. Numerous reports have quoted Fitton’s family, who feared for his life, saying that they felt the government had abandoned him to his fate in Iraq. While consular officials in the UK and Iraq were accused of abandoning Fitton, it must be said that there is only so much a British consulate can do, given that the laws of Iraq (or any other country) apply to citizens, residents, and visitors.
These are three of the so-called antiquities that Jim Fitton, a retired British geologist, was accused of attempting to smuggle out of Iraq at the end of his Iraqi holiday. (YouTube screenshot / Sky News )
Though co-accused German national Volker Waldmann, who’d been detained with Fitton, was found not guilty, judge Jabir Abd Jabir ruled otherwise for Fitton. He argued that by picking up the artifacts, Fitton showed criminal intent and that he planned to transport the items out of the country. And in Iraq that is the definition of smuggling.
Fitton’s ignorance of Iraqi laws and the fact that the fragments were worthless were considered as invalid arguments by judge Jabir Abd Jabir. Fitton was transported to a police station near Baghdad airport after the verdict.
The verdict has left his legal team in disbelief. They expected a one-year sentence with suspension at worst. “My client does not deserve this punishment. The antiques that were found with him were stones and pieces of broken pottery that had no material, or archaeological, value,” said his lawyer Thair Soud. He also stated that his legal team will immediately appeal this sentence ahead of an upcoming routine court review of the case.
When detained in March, Fitton and Voldmann were arrested and charged under Article 41 of the Iraqi Artifacts Law No. 55, which stipulates that “excavating, digging or otherwise removing any antiquity or heritage material without expressed written permission from the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage is an offense punishable by death.”
“The court’s decision was not proper for two reasons,” said Soud. “The first is because it did not apply the law [correctly], and secondly because of the severity of the punishment .”
Jim Fitton, a retired British geologist on a tourist visa, went to Iraq on holiday. During his visit he went to the ruins of Eridu, pictured here, in southern Iran. And it was here that he picked up the worthless artifacts that resulted in his smuggling conviction and 15 year prison sentence. (Thais Gilo / Public domain )
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Bath's Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse said the sentence was "… a devastating outcome for Jim and his family. There is now no other option but for the Foreign Secretary to intervene at a ministerial level. The Foreign Secretary must make representations to the Iraqi Government. The government has ignored the family’s pleas to intervene. The ministers have failed to engage with Jim’s family and they have set a dangerous precedent for British citizens who are in trouble abroad.”
The Foreign Office had previously issued a statement in which it said it cannot interfere with the judicial process of another country, as per a BBC report on the matter.
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Al Jazeera reports that it is unclear whether Fitton can serve his sentence in his home country, as per the finer details of a prisoner transfer treaty between Iraq and the United Kingdom. However, Fitton’s family is “absolutely shattered” and “heartbroken” upon hearing that his sentence was so severe. They argue that 15 years at his age is the equivalent of a death sentence, albeit slow and torturous. His lawyer, Soud, added that Fitton was a habitual collector of small pieces of memorabilia wherever he travelled, including small stones and odd titbits. He plans to use this argument in drafting Fitton’s legal appeal to revoke this overly severe sentence.
As things stand, this is a stark warning to anyone considering taking ancient mementos on their travels in other country. Before you go and especially before you “take something” be sure you know the laws of the country you are in. And be wary of taking the advice of others, even if they seem to be officials, which were the very people who told Fitton it was perfectly okay to take a few worthless pottery fragments.
Top image: Jim Fitton, a retired British geologist on holiday, was sentenced to 15 years of prison in Iraq for antiquities smuggling. Source: YouTube screenshot / itv News
By Sahir Pandey
Batycka, D. 2022. As a British Geologist Faces the Death Penalty in Iraq for Smuggling, His Family Is Pleading With the U.K. Government to Intervene . Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/british-geologist-faces-death-penalty-in-iraq-2111372.
BBC. 2022. British geologist jailed in Iraq after taking artefacts . Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-somerset-61705370.
Chulov, M., Ambrose, T. 2022. Briton given 15 years in Iraqi jail for smuggling antiquities to appeal verdict . Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/06/british-geologist-jailed-iraq-smuggling-artefacts-jim-fitton.