BAGHDAD -- A retired British geologist accused by Iraq of collecting small archaeological fragments had no criminal intent, his family said, expressing hopes the charges — potentially punishable by death — could be avoided.
Jim Fitton, 66, was arrested last month at Baghdad airport after Iraqi customs officials found him and a German citizen in possession of pottery fragments taken from an ancient site in southern Iraq.
The German citizen has not been identified and his status was not immediately clear. The German Embassy in Baghdad did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Fitton was charged based on the country’s opaque antiquities laws and could theoretically face the death penalty. He is currently waiting for a date to appear in court.
It's unlikely he will receive the death penalty, officials and legal representatives familiar with the case said. But the potential for Iran-backed Shiite militias to exploit the situation to shape public opinion against the British government has concerned some.
Fitton's family is urging the British government to help close the case before he goes to trial based on a proposal drafted by Fitton’s Baghdad lawyer. A trial date was expected to be set next week.
“It’s a very politically charged issue for us. We are keen to make sure the Iraqi public understands the nuance around the case,” said Sam Taskar, Fitton’s son-in-law in a phone call with The Associated Press on Tuesday. “Anybody with common sense … will understand it’s quite clearly an error.”
Fitton’s family grew worried when he did not arrive on a scheduled flight back to Kuala Lumpur, where he resides with his wife, on March 20. They later learned that Fitton, a well-traveled geologist for oil and gas companies, had been taken to an airport holding cell where he is still being detained, Taskar and Fitton's daughter Leila told AP.
The case garnered attention when, frustrated by perceived inaction on the part of the British Foreign Office to intervene and assist in Fitton’s case, his family started a petition that has garnered over 100,000 signatures. The British diplomatic mission in Baghdad has not commented on its involvement in the case.
In total, 12 fragments of pottery and other shards were found in Fitton’s possession by Iraqi authorities, all of them collected as souvenirs, Fitton's family says, during a group tourism expedition to Eridu, an ancient Mesopotamian site in what is now Dhi Qar province.
Concerns grew shortly after Fitton’s arrest when Shiite militia groups published posts on social media that included his passport details and accused the British government of attempting to intervene with Iraqi judicial procedures.
In these posts, photos of Fitton were accompanied by images of artifacts and sculptures, depictions the family fears will lead the Iraqi public to misinterpret the value of the shards in Fitton’s possession.
Photos of the site shared by Fitton on the day of the trip show a vast desert landscape scattered with debris and broken pieces of pottery and stones. The tour group was accompanied by a representative from the Culture Ministry who did not state the items were valuable and gave them permission to take them as mementos, Taskar said.
Fitton’s Baghdad lawyer has already drafted a proposal under Iraqi law to have the case closed before a trial takes place but it requires the assistance of the Foreign Office to present it to the public prosecutor in Iraq.
The proposal makes an argument for Fitton’s lack of criminality in the case and makes the claim that he was a victim of poor guidance. “This is the hope,” Taskar said.
If the case is not thrown out, Fitton will likely stand trial. A key element of his sentencing would be to establish the value of the goods found in his possession. As written, the law proscribes death as a penalty for items deemed valuable. Iraqi and British officials say the outcome will depend on the findings of an antiquities committee set up to study the shards.
For now, Fitton’s family has no choice but to wait, and hope.
“It’s tough to say the least, we are very stressed,” said daughter Leila. “My mom is keeping faith, praying a lot, and we are just keeping faith.”