British tourist gets 15 years in prison in Iraq for recovering fragments from archaeological site

A British tourist who took potsherds from an archaeological site was sentenced to 15 years in Iraqi prison on Monday after a Baghdad cou...

A British tourist who took potsherds from an archaeological site was sentenced to 15 years in Iraqi prison on Monday after a Baghdad court found him guilty of trying to smuggle the artifacts out of the country.

The court found James Fitton, a 66-year-old retired geologist, guilty under a 2002 law which carries a sentence of seven to 15 years in prison for theft of artifacts or antiquities. Looting antiquities with weapons or with other people is a crime punishable by death in Iraq.

“The site where he took the small pieces and stones was open without guards, so he took a few pieces as souvenirs,” said Mr Fitton’s defense lawyer, Thair Soud, adding that his client did not had made no attempt to hide the pieces, wrapping them in Kleenex and putting them in her luggage.

The severity of the sentence has raised questions in a country where antiquities looting is rampant, but few Iraqis have been handed such harsh sentences in recent years. Mr Soud, who said he was extremely surprised by the conviction, argued that the items had no commercial value and said he would appeal.

Mr Fitton was part of a UK-based tour group visiting Iraq in March when they visited the Sumerian site of Eridu in the south. He told the court that while at the site – which, like many Iraqi archaeological sites, is largely unexplored and unguarded – he picked up potsherds and stones to take home as memories. He said he didn’t know it was illegal.

Airport security found 12 pottery shards and stones in Mr Fitton’s luggage as he and other members of the tour group flew from Baghdad in March.

The UK Tour Manager Goeff Hann85, in poor health, was prevented from being medically evacuated out of the country after suffering a stroke because he was wanted for questioning in the case, according to British media. Backcountry travelthe travel agency, said Mr. Hann died in a Baghdad hospital on April 12. Mr. Hann, the founder of the adventure travel company, had organized trips to Iraq for years and was co-author of one of the few guides for the country.

The court on Monday acquitted another tourist in the same group, 60-year-old German citizen Volker Waldman, who had two artifacts in his luggage, after accepting his defense that Mr Fitton had given him the items to carry.

Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nadhem said in a phone interview that his ministry had not contributed to the conviction, saying the ministry’s only role was to provide experts to confirm the objects were artifacts. of Eridu.

Although the Minister did not comment on Mr Fitton’s specific case, he said: ‘We support any type of legal action against those who attempt to steal and smuggle artifacts.’

The current Iraqi government has focused on the repatriation of looted antiquities from abroad, including artifacts purchased by the US-based Hobby Lobby chain for his Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The most publicized piece, a tablet with a fragment of the oldest known epic poem in the world, was returned this year to Iraq and is now on display at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia in antiquity, is known as the cradle of civilization and was home to the earliest known cities that arose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The widespread looting of artifacts began after 1991 when dictator Saddam Hussein temporarily lost control of southern Iraq.

In 2003, thousands of exhibits were stolen from the Iraq Museum after the deployment of the US military for the invasion of Iraq stood there while it was looted.

Nadhem said the looting of archaeological sites, most of which have yet to be excavated by archaeologists, is a major problem in Iraq.

“We have over 25,000 archaeological sites,” he said. “We don’t have enough police. We don’t have enough technology like drones or surveillance cameras. So we cannot control the whole of Iraq.

But he said he did not know of any Iraqi who, in the past two years since he was minister, had been convicted on similar charges.

Iraq, which receives millions of religious pilgrims a year, has a nascent sector that welcomes Western tourists traveling to see archaeological sites. Mr Nadhem said he estimated the figures at around 1,000 a year and did not believe Mr Fitton’s conviction would affect the industry.

“The numbers are very low, so I don’t think there will be an impact on that,” he said.

Falah Hassan and Nermeen al-Mufti contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: British tourist gets 15 years in prison in Iraq for recovering fragments from archaeological site
British tourist gets 15 years in prison in Iraq for recovering fragments from archaeological site
Newsrust - US Top News
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