As a British Geologist Faces the Death Penalty in Iraq for Smuggling, His Family Is Pleading With the U.K. Government to Intervene

Jim Fitton's family says he was told the pieces of ancient pottery were of no significant cultural or economic value.

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.

A retired British geologist is facing the death penalty in Iraq after pieces of ancient pottery were found in his luggage as he was attempting to leave Baghdad airport late in March. 

Jim Fitton, 66, was in Iraq on an organized trip to Eridu, a Sumerian archaeological site dating back to 5,400 BCE, where he picked up the ancient pieces. According to his family, he was told by local guides that the fragments he collected were worthless and of no cultural or economic value. 

According to a report in the Washington Post, a total of 12 fragments of pottery were found in Fitton’s possession at the airport by Iraqi authorities. Fitton’s family says a representative from the country’s Culture Ministry was part of the tour, and gave the group permission to remove the objects.

Although it is unlikely Fitton will receive the death penalty for taking the items, the Post reports there are concerns the case has become a politically charged one. The newspaper points to online posts made by Shiite militia groups that included Fitton’s passport details alongside images of artifacts and sculptures. 

Fitton was part of a group reportedly led by British tour operator Geoff Hann, who died in hospital in Iraq after suffering a stroke. Hann, 85, was a veteran guide who spent the last 50 years arranging heritage tours there, despite the decades of war and conflict that besieged the country. 

According to the Daily Mail, Hann suffered a stroke that rendered him immobile and unable to speak the day before the group was set to depart. Instead of boarding the flight, he was transferred to a hospital in Baghdad, where days later he caught Covid-19 and developed blood clots in his lungs. Although he was starting to recover and funds were raised for a medical evacuation, Iraqi authorities would not allow Hann to leave the country after the members of his tour were arrested for smuggling antiquities, and he succumbed to his injuries last week. 

As a veteran tour operator, Hann was no stranger to the laws in Iraq and he had even published a comprehensive guidebook which warned visitors explicitly: “The outrage at the looting in Iraq, principally that of the National Museum, has resulted in the tightening and strict implementation of rules regarding the selling, purchasing and possessing of antiquities in Iraq.”

Hann’s manual also warned those coming to the country to be careful of sellers peddling ancient wares in markets: “Under no circumstances should you try to smuggle antiquities out of Iraq.”

But when Hann fell ill during the tour, a trainee guide reportedly took over and did not warn members of the tour—including Fitton—about removing any items from the ancient site. 

When the group attempted to leave the country, Fitton and a fellow tourist from Germany 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. 

According to numerous media reports, Fitton’s family is accusing consular officials in the UK and Iraq of “abandoning him, and expressed concerns over the conditions he is being held in.”

Fitton’s trial was set to commence this weekend, and his family has called for the Foreign Office, the U.K. diplomatic arm, to step in to close the case. A petition asking the British government for help in freeing Fitton has collected 126,000 signatures so far.

“We are keen to make sure the Iraqi public understands the nuance around the case,” Sam Taskar, Fitton’s son-in-law, told the Associated Press last week, “Anybody with common sense … will understand it’s quite clearly an error.”

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