When Jim Fitton picked up pieces of pottery one day in March in Eridu, a Sumerian archaeological site dating back to 5,400 BCE in southeast Iraq, he was sure they held no economic or historical value as the guides had assured him that the fragments were worthless.
But what was supposed to be a regular organized geological and archaeological trip to the Middle East turned into the worst nightmare for the 66-year-old retired British geologist.
Fitton, originally from Bath and now based in Malaysia, was arrested at the Baghdad airport while he was attempting to leave the country on March 20. He has since been detained on suspicion of smuggling after 12 stones and shards of broken pottery were found in his luggage.
The statutory punishment for his alleged crime is execution, as he was charged under the 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.
Although legal experts have suggested that such an outcome is unlikely, the potential for Iran-backed Shiite militias to exploit the situation to shape public opinion against the British government has some concerned.
“It’s a very politically charged issue for us. 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. “Anybody with common sense … will understand it’s quite clearly an error.”
Fitton was part of a group led by Geoff Hann, an 85-year-old veteran British guide who spent the last 50 years organizing heritage tours in Iraq despite the decades of conflict and turmoil that rocked the country.
Hann was very familiar with Iraqi laws and was no stranger to tightening and rigorous enforcement of the rules governing the sale, purchase and possession of antiques in the Middle Eastern country. But the day before the group was set to depart, he suffered a stroke that left him immobile and unable to speak.
While he was transferred to a hospital in Baghdad where days later he lost his life, a trainee guide apparently took over and failed to give a hint of warning that these items were considered valuable.
The retired British geologist “suspected” the pieces he collected were ancient fragments, but he “had no idea he was breaking the local law” or that taking the shards was a criminal offense. He explained all while appearing before a panel of judges at a Baghdad court on May 15, wearing a stark yellow prison suit, pleading his innocence to judges and saying “there were fences, no guards or signage” at the sites.
Head judge Jaber Abdel Jabir’s response came immediately. “These places, in name and by definition, are ancient sites,” he said. “One doesn’t have to say it is forbidden.” The geologist said he was in the habit of collecting such fragments as a hobby and had no intention to sell them.
The three-judge panel in Baghdad’s felony court scheduled a second hearing for May 22 to allow for additional evidence to be submitted. The court must determine whether the defendant had tried to profit from taking the items.
“We remain hopeful that Jim will be able to continue to articulate himself well as we believe that his innocence is self-evident,” said Fitton’s son-in-law. “We are hopeful that he is returned to us safe and sound soon so that we can all recover in peace from this terrible ordeal.”
Fitton worked as a geologist for oil and gas companies during his career and lives in his adopted home of Malaysia with his wife, Sarijah, while his daughter, Leila Fitton, and her husband, Sam Tasker, are based in Bath, Somerset.
Their petition together with Fitton’s son, Joshua, launched on Change.org in late April calling on the British government to help in securing Fitton’s release has racked up close to 300,000 signatures.
They also pleaded with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) — the UK diplomatic arm — to intervene and step in to close the case. But the family is no longer actively lobbying the Foreign Office to intervene, as “it feels like a lost cause,” they said. The British ambassador in Iraq has raised the case four times with Iraqi authorities, but the Office cannot give further help.
“Now, we are just focusing on the trial,” the family said. “We will submit more evidence to clear Jim; we will continue to fight and have him at our backs.”