UK man jailed for 15 years in Iraq for smuggling artefacts

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A British man was imprisoned for 15 years for smuggling 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 attorney. He and his family have argued that Fitton, 66, had no criminal intent.

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A German national tried with Fitton was found not to have criminal intent in the case and will be released.

But Judge Jabir Abd Jabir found that by picking up the items, found to be artefacts dating older than 200 years, according to a technical government investigation, and intending to transport them out of the country, Fitton had criminal intent to smuggle them.

The trial has grabbed international 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 Soud’s arguments that laid out Fitton’s ignorance of Iraqi laws and the value of the items he picked up.

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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.

In total, 12 fragments of pottery and other shards were found in Fitton’s possession by Iraqi authorities, all of them collected as souvenirs, Fitton’s family says, during a group tourism expedition to Eridu, an ancient Mesopotamian site in what is now Dhi Qar province.

Waldman’s defence team has said the German tourist had been carrying the pieces for Fitton but that he did not pick them up from the site. Both men were charged with smuggling based on the country’s antiquities laws.

Soud said he intends to appeal the sentence immediately. It is not clear if Fitton can serve out his sentence in his home country as this would require a bilateral agreement between Iraq and the UK.

Based on Iraqi law, both men could have faced the death penalty, an outcome that legal experts said from the beginning was unlikely.

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