British geologist sentenced to prison in Iraq for taking artifacts

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A Baghdad court has sentenced a British tourist to 15 years in prison for recovering potsherds from the archaeological site of an ancient city in southeastern Iraq.

Jim Fitton, a 66-year-old retired geologist, was convicted of attempting to smuggle artifacts out of the country after he was arrested at Baghdad airport with several fragments and stones in his luggage. The British citizen and his family maintained he was unaware it was illegal and that the shards were in an open, unguarded area when he picked them up.

Monday’s decision rocked Fitton’s family and his attorney told reporters he would appeal.

“We couldn’t be more heartbroken and shocked,” his daughter, Leila, wrote in an online petition for her release, describing the sentence as a “horrible injustice.” “We are suspending our emotional responses in favor of affirmative action to bring Jim home,” his family’s statement added.

With a group of tourists visiting Iraq earlier this year, Fitton visited the archaeological site of Eridu, part of the remains of the Sumerian cities of ancient Mesopotamia.

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His family urged the UK government to step in and approve the appeal.

Britain’s Foreign Office said in an email on Tuesday that it was “in touch with local authorities” but did not respond to questions about the verdict or whether Fitton could serve his sentence in his country. origin instead of Iraq. “We are providing consular assistance to a British national in Iraq and continuing to support his family,” he said.

Under a 2002 heritage law in Iraq, the looting of artifacts can result in a prison sentence of seven to 15 years, while the theft of antiquities by force with weapons or in groups is punishable by the death penalty.

The country, home to the proverbial cradle of civilization, has seen a push to recover thousands of ancient artifacts that were looted in the two decades since the US invasion – many of which have ended up in museums and personal collections in the United States and around the world. world.

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Neglect of archaeological sites, lack of funds and corruption then enabled further looting, while Islamic State militants notoriously destroyed and smuggled antiquities when they held territory in Iraq.

Last year, the United States returned more than 17,000 contraband artifacts, as Iraq’s culture minister hailed international efforts to arrest smugglers and return looted goods.

There was no immediate comment from the Iraqi government on Fitton’s prison sentence on Monday, which seemed to shock his lawyer. “I thought the worst-case scenario would be a year, with suspension,” the attorney told The Associated Press.

Iraqi tour operator founder Bil Weekend said the case highlights the need to educate tourists about efforts to protect the country’s heritage. “The first thing we mention is not to pick up items and talk about the importance of heritage protection in Iraq,” Ali Al Makhzomy tweeted.

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