Thou Shalt Not Steal: Iraqi Court Sentences Briton to 15 Years Behind Bars for Artefact Smuggling

© AP Photo / Hadi MizbanVolker Waldmann, right, and Jim Fitton, center, are handcuffed as they walk to a courtroom in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, May 22, 2022
Volker Waldmann, right, and Jim Fitton, center, are handcuffed as they walk to a courtroom in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, May 22, 2022 - Sputnik International, 1920, 06.06.2022
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Retired British geologist James Fitton, 66, and German psychiatrist Volker Waldmann, 60, were part of an unspecified tourist group before they were detained at Baghdad Airport on 20 March and charged with being in possession of 12 pieces of broken antique pottery.
An Iraqi court has sentenced British citizen Jim Fitton to 15 years behind bars on charges of smuggling ancient artefacts out of the country, accusations the 66-year-old denies.
On Monday, Judge Jabir Abd Jabir announced that by picking up the artefacts, which are more than 200 years old, and planning to transport them to the UK, Fitton had criminal intent to smuggle them.
According to Jabir, German national Volker Waldmann, 60, who was tried along with Fitton, has been found not to have such a criminal intent and is due to be released.
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Fitton’s lawyer Thair Soud reacted by telling reporters that he thought “the worst-case scenario would be one year, with suspension”.
Soud added that the judge had not considered his arguments related to Fitton’s ignorance of Iraqi laws and the value of the items the retired geologist had picked up. The lawyer did not elaborate.
At the same time, he pledged to appeal Fitton’s sentence immediately as it remains unclear if the 66-year-old Fitton will be able to do time in his home country, given a current prisoner transfer treaty between Iraq and the UK.
Fitton and Waldmann were arrested at Baghdad Airport on March 20 after local security discovered the 12 stones and shards of broken pottery in their luggage, artefacts that the retired geologist found at an archaeological site in the ancient Sumerian city of Eridu while he and Waldmann were part of an unspecified tourist group at the time.
During the hearings late last month, Waldmann’s defence team argued that the German tourist had been carrying the pieces for Fitton, but that he did not pick them up from the site.
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Fitton, for his part, asserted that he had “suspected” the items he had collected were ancient fragments, but added that he “at the time didn’t know about Iraqi laws”, or that taking the shards was not permitted.
“I did not realise that it was against the law to take these pieces. What puzzled me was that some [archaeological] sites had warnings, guards and fences, while others were open”, the 66-year-old argued.
This was preceded by UK Minister of State for Asia and the Middle East Amanda Melling stating the British government’s “concerns have already been raised with Iraqi authorities regarding the possible imposition of the death penalty in the Fitton case”.
The Iraqi Heritage and Antiquities Law’s Article 41 stipulates that deliberately removing “archaeological material from Iraq” or trying to do so is punishable by sentence of up to capital punishment.
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