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

A British tourist who took pottery shards from an archaeological site was sentenced Monday to 15 years in an Iraqi prison 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 that 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 with no guards, so he took some pieces as souvenirs,” Fitton’s defense attorney Thair Soud said, adding that his client had made no attempt to hide the pieces. . wrapping them in Kleenex and putting them in his luggage.

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

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

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

UK Tour Manager Goeff Hann85, with health problems, could not be medically evacuated out of the country after suffering a stroke because he was wanted for questioning in the case, according to British media. backcountry tripsthe 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 co-authored one of the few guides to the country.

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

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

Although the Minister did not comment on Mr Fitton’s specific case, he said: “We support any kind of legal action against those trying to steal and smuggle artifacts.”

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

Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia in ancient times, is known as the cradle of civilization and was home to the first 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 US military deployed for the invasion of Iraq stood aside while it was looted.

Nadhem said looting of archaeological sites, most of which have not yet been excavated by archaeologists, is a major problem in Iraq.

“We have more than 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 can’t control all of Iraq.

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

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