An Iraqi Court Has Overturned a British Tourist’s 15-Year Sentence For Stealing Ancient Pottery Shards

James Fitton, a retired geologist who took the objects as souvenirs of a guided tour, is expected to be released soon.

The family of retired British geologist Jim Fitton (third from left) has launched a petition asking for the Foreign Office to intervene in his case.

Last month, in a story that made headlines around the world, a British tourist was sentenced to 15 years in an Iraqi prison for taking a dozen pottery shards from an unguarded archaeology site. Now, the man’s conviction has been overturned and he is set to be released from confinement, according to his family and lawyer. 

James Fitton, a 66-year-old retired geologist from Bath, England, was on an organized tour of the Sumerian site of Eridu in southern Iraq this spring when he pocketed the shards. He was arrested at a Baghdad airport on March 20 after officers discovered the objects, some up to 200 years old, in his suitcase.

An Iraqi court found Fitton guilty of violating a Saddam Hussein-era statute against looting antiquities. This week, however, Iraq’s court of cassation overturned the ruling, according to Fitton’s lawyer Thaer Saoud. The attorney told the Associated French Press that his “client will soon be free.”

In a statement, Fitton’s family explained that they are “over the moon” about the news. 

“For the first time since March 20th, Leila, Josh, Sarijah, and I are smiling without irony,” said Fitton’s son-in-law Sam Tasker, referring to retired geologist’s daughter, son, and wife, respectively.

“We were informed this morning that the appeals court has decided to quash the verdict of the Felony Court, to fully recognize Jim’s innocence in this case, and to process his immediate release from a 15-year prison sentence in Baghdad,” Tasker went on. “We understand that this process is underway. He is still in prison this evening but will soon be released.”

The son-in-law noted that the family will not be doing further interviews until Fitton is home, saying they “don’t want to inflame the wrong groups or put him at any risk.”

“Once he is home,” Tasker said, “we will celebrate and take some time to recover as a family, and will be happy to tell the story to anyone who will listen.”

James Fitton (L) and Volker Waldmann (R), leave Baghdad/Karkh Federal Appeal Court after attending an appeal hearing. Photo: Ameer Al-Mohammedawi via Getty Images.

Following her father’s detainment, Leila Fitton launched an online petition urging the Foreign Office, a diplomatic arm of the U.K. government, to intervene. More than 350,000 people signed the document as the retired geologist’s story spread online.

While on trial, Fitton explained that collecting souvenirs from archeological sites was a hobby of his. At Eridu, he said he was actually encouraged by the tour’s leaders to take souvenirs and did not know he breaking the law.

A German tourist also on the organized trip was arrested alongside Fitton. But that man, Volker Waldmann, was ultimately acquitted of charges after his lawyer argued that he was simply holding the objects for the Brit.

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, welcomed the development. “It is impossible to imagine the stress that Jim and his family have endured over the past few months,” Hobhouse told the Guardian. “[They] have shown incredible strength and should be extremely proud of the role they have played in pressuring the government to act.” 

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