A British citizen was sentenced by an Iraqi court to 15 years in prison on charges of smuggling artefacts out of the country, in a case that has attracted international attention.
The verdict handed down on Monday to retired geologist Jim Fitton left the court in Baghdad shocked.
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A German national tried with Fitton, Volker Waldmann, was found not to have criminal intent in the case and will be released.
“I thought the worst-case scenario would be one year, with suspension,” Fitton’s lawyer, Thair Soud, said, visibly shocked.
Judge Jabir Abd Jabir found that by picking up the artefacts, which were dated as 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 judge did not consider Soud’s arguments that laid out Fitton’s ignorance of Iraqi laws and the value of the items he had picked up.
Fitton and Waldmann were arrested at Baghdad airport on March 20 after airport security discovered the items in their luggage. They had been part of a tourism expedition across the country’s ancient sites.
Fitton’s family grew worried when he did not arrive on a scheduled flight back to Kuala Lumpur, where he lives with his wife, on March 20.
They later learned that Fitton, a well-travelled geologist for oil and gas companies, had been taken to an airport holding cell where he was still being held.
The case has received international attention at a time when Iraq hopes to boost its nascent tourism sector.
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.
Waldmann’s defence team had said that 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, which potentially could have been punished by the death penalty. However, officials had said that was only a remote possibility.
Soud said he intends to appeal Fitton’s sentence immediately. It is not clear if Fitton will be able to serve his sentence in his home country, which is a possibility due to a prisoner transfer treaty between Iraq and the United Kingdom.