A 66-year-old British man has been sentenced to 15 years in prison in Iraq after he was found guilty of stealing antiquities while on an archaeological tour of the country, his lawyer has said.
Fitton’s family, who say they fear the retired geologist might die while serving his sentence, said they were “shattered” by Monday’s verdict and have urged the UK government to seek his release.
According to a petition started by his family, Fitton was arrested on March 20 at Baghdad International Airport when 12 fragments were found by customs officials in his luggage. The fragments were sent to the Iraqi National Museum for analysis and were classified as artifacts, the petition says.
Fitton was charged with attempting to smuggle artifacts out of the country under Iraq’s antiquity laws.
A German man also arrested in March, Volker Waldmann, was found not guilty due to lack of evidence, and was released on Monday, according to Thair Soud, Fitton’s lawyer.
On the petition page, Fitton’s family said he was on a geology and archaeology tour of Iraq’s southern ancient city of Eridu when he picked up the 12 fragments. They said there were no guards or signage that prohibited the removal of items.
Soud says his client did not know what the items were and had been taken from a waste dump in an archeological area. He said his client loves stones and collects them from every place he visits, claiming he had no criminal intent.
The decision will be appealed, Soud says.
“We are absolutely shattered by this news,” Fitton’s family told CNN. “For a man of Jim’s age, 15 years in an Iraqi prison is tantamount to a death sentence. Particularly for such a trivial and dubious crime, a crime that Jim was not even aware of when he perpetrated it.”
“We are completely heartbroken that our own best efforts, a strong legal defense and constant campaigning, have led to this outcome.”
The family also spoke of frustration at the lack of support from UK authorities in assisting with Fitton’s situation.
“We are disappointed, indeed stunned, at our own government’s total lack of action in this case to date,” they said. “We are raising an appeal and will continue to fight for Jim’s freedom, and urge the government to support us in every way possible and to open lines of communication with us at a senior level.”
Asked about Fitton’s case, a spokesperson for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office spokesperson told CNN: “We are providing consular assistance to a British national in Iraq, and continue to support his family. We are in contact with the local authorities.”
Top image: Jim Fitton, center, was found guilty of attempting to smuggle antiquities. German tourist Volker Waldmann, right, was found not guilty due to lack of evidence. Credit: Hadi Mizban/AP
Tasmiyah Randeree in Abu Dhabi and Benjamin Brown in London contributed to this story