An Iraq Court Just Sentenced a British Tourist to 15 Years in Prison for Taking Pottery Shards From an Archaeology Site

The man’s lawyer said he plans to immediately appeal the decision, which left his family feeling “hopeless” and “broken.”

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 tourist has been sentenced to 15 years in an Iraqi prison for taking a dozen pottery shards from an unguarded archaeology site.

In a stunning turn in the case, which has drawn international attention in recent months, James Fitton, a 66-year-old retired geologist from Bath, was found guilty of looting antiquities and hit with the maximum penalty allowable under a Saddam Hussein-era law.

Fitton was on an organized archaeology tour earlier this spring when he took the shards from the Sumerian site of Eridu, an unexcavated landmark in southern Iraq where one of Mesopotamia’s earliest cities once stood. Pocketing the objects as souvenirs of his trip, he ​insisted he did not know he was breaking the law.

Fitton was arrested at a Baghdad airport on March 20 after officers discovered the objects, which could be up to 200 years old, in his suitcase.

A German tourist named Volker Waldmann, who had been arrested alongside Fitton for storing some of Brit’s shards in his own suitcase, was acquitted of the same charges. 

Thair Soud, Fitton’s lawyer, said he planned to appeal the ruling immediately. “The court’s decision was not proper for two reasons,” he told the Guardian. “The first is because it did not apply the law [correctly], and secondly because of the severity of the punishment.”

“My client does not deserve this punishment,” Soud went on. “The antiques that were found with him were stones and pieces of broken pottery that had no material, or archaeological, value.”

A frequent traveler, Fitton’s home is filled with small souvenirs from trips abroad, the lawyer explained. He, along with the other members of the tour in Iraq, was allegedly told by trip leaders that picking up shards from Eridu would be no issue.

(The tour’s director, an 85-year-old British man named Goeff Hann, suffered a stroke after the March trip but was prevented from leaving Iraq in order to undergo questioning in the case. He died in a Baghdad hospital on April 12.)

“We feel helpless. We’re so, so broken,” Fitton’s daughter Leila told Good Morning Britain today, fighting through tears.

A month ago, while her father was detained in Iraq, Leila Fitton launched an online petition urging the Foreign Office, a diplomatic arm of the U.K. government, to step in. More than 120,000 people had signed the document by the trial. Since then, the number of signatories has eclipsed 300,000.

To date, the Foreign Office has declined to intervene, saying that it can’t interfere with another country’s judicial processes.

Wera Hobhouse, the MP for Bath, told the Guardian that, with its inaction, the government has “set a dangerous precedent for British citizens who are in trouble abroad.”

In a statement released after the verdict, Fitton’s son-in-law Sam Tasker said the family was “absolutely shattered by this news.”

“For a man of Jim’s age,” he went on, “15 years in an Iraqi prison is tantamount to a death sentence.”

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