Brit geologist could face death penalty in Iraq for trying to smuggle artefacts

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A retired British geologist could face the death penalty in Iraq after being accused of attempting to smuggle historical artefacts out of the country.

Father-of-two Jim Fitton, 66, who lives in Malaysia, was held over smuggling allegations during his first visit to the country for a geology and archaeology tour.

His family claim he found the pottery fragments out in the open and was told by the tour guide, who's since died, that it would be fine to take.

Now his children, Joshua and Leila, and Leila's husband Sam Tasker, have set up a petition to press the UK government to assist with the case.

Mr Tasker said in a statement Mr Fitton and a German man on the trip were arrested on March 20, following a security check of the group's baggage at the airport in which 12 shards were said to have been recovered from his luggage.

His family say he is accused of taking broken shards of pottery found at the Eridu historical site in southern Iraq.

Their tour leader was taken into custody around the same time, after suffering a possible stroke, and has since passed away.

A family statement reads: "Whilst on the tour, our father visited historical sites around Iraq, where his tour group found fragments of stones and shards of broken pottery in piles on the ground.

"These fragments were in the open, unguarded and with no signage warning against removal. Tour leaders also collected the shards as souvenirs at the site in Eridu.

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"Tour members were told that this would not be an issue, as the broken shards had no economic or historical value."

It added: "We think that our father may be put on trial the week commencing May 8, after Eid in Iraq.

"We have days to save him before sentencing and we need the Foreign Office to help by intervening in his case now.

"Our lawyer has drafted a proposal for cessation of the case and the immediate repatriation of our father, which requires the backing of the Foreign Office to put to the Iraqi judiciary.

Mr Tasker, in a statement, explained: "Jim would often bring home small souvenirs from his trips to remember the journey by and share his experiences with us.

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"To him this was no more significant than bringing home a small stone from the beach to remember a special family holiday. The items are widely agreed to be valueless.

'This is the offence that now sees my father-in-law facing a potential death sentence under article 41 of the Iraqi artefacts law no.55, of 2002."

Modern day Iraq occupies the land that was once Mesopotamia, and as a result has a trove of historical sites – including the ancient city of Babylon.

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The site in question, Eridu, is found in southern Mesopotamia, and is considered to be the earliest city in the southern region – dating back to approximately 5,400BC.

Archaeological looting in Iraq has taken place since at least the 19th century, and often occurred in the chaos that followed war – including the 2003 Iraq war.

As a result, Iraq has strict laws in place against looting, and anyone found guilty can be severely punished – with large fines, prison sentences and even the death penalty.

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Mr Tasker is a constituent of Wera Hobhouse, MP for Bath, who has raised the case in the House of Commons and urged ministers to respond to the "incredibly serious" incident.

Hobhouse said in Parliament: "Mr Speaker, I have a constituent whose father-in-law has been detained in a country with known human rights abuses.

"My constituent's father-in-law is a British citizen with no family history or previous ties to the country where he is being held.

"It is unacceptable that, in this most urgent case, my office did not receive so much as a holding response from the Minister's private office until yesterday afternoon.

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"Mr Speaker, could you advise me as to how to draw the Government's attention to this incredibly serious and timely issue?"

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: "We are providing consular support to a British national in Iraq and are in contact with the local authorities.

"Whilst the Minister will be unable to meet with Wera at this time due to diary pressures, we understand that the constituent and yourselves are in contact with Consular officials and want to reassure you that at present, this will be the most suitable route in order to best help and support the constituent, her father-in-law, and their family.

"Please rest assured that the Minister is being kept well abreast of this case by the Consular team, and our thoughts are with the family."

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