British geologist sent to prison for trying to smuggle antiquities out of Iraq

Baghdad, Iraq Updated: Jun 06, 2022, 06:22 PM(IST)

James Fitton, the British geologist Photograph:( Reuters )

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In his verdict, the judge found that Fitton was "aware" that the location from where he collected the fragments was "an archaeological site" and that it was illegal to take them. The judge concluded there was criminal intent. The court found "insufficient evidence" to convict co-accused Volker Waldmann, 60, who was visiting Iraq with Fitton on an organised tour when they were arrested in March at Baghdad airport. 
 

An Iraqi court on Monday sentenced a British retired geologist to 15 years in prison for trying to smuggle antiquities out of the country but released a German co-accused, who was found not to have criminal intent in the case.

The maximum penalty for the offence is death by hanging but the court decided on a lesser sentence for James Fitton, 66, "because of the advanced age of the accused," the judge said. Fitton's lawyer said that he would appeal.  

The court found "insufficient evidence" to convict co-accused Volker Waldmann, 60, who was visiting Iraq with Fitton on an organised tour when they were arrested in March at Baghdad airport. 

War-ravaged Iraq's tourism infrastructure is almost non-existent but the country is timidly opening to visitors. Iraq has also been trying to recover antiquities that were looted over a period of decades from the country whose civilisation dates back thousands of years.

When the judge asked the men whether they were guilty or not guilty "of trafficking antiquities," each replied: "Not guilty."

They appeared in court dressed in yellow prisoners' clothing, but not handcuffed, said an AFP journalist at the hearing. They were charged under a 2002 law against "intentionally taking or trying to take out of Iraq an antiquity".

According to statements from customs officers and witnesses, Fitton's baggage contained about a dozen stone fragments, pieces of pottery or ceramics. Waldmann, a Berlin psychologist, allegedly had two pieces but at the trial's opening on May 15 denied they were his.

When the judge asked Fitton why he tried to take the artefacts out of Iraq, he cited his "hobby" and said he did not mean to do anything illegal. "I didn't realise that taking them was against the law," Fitton said, adding that some of the ancient sites were open and unguarded.

In his verdict, the judge found that Fitton was "aware" that the location from where he collected the fragments was "an archaeological site" and that it was illegal to take them. The judge concluded there was criminal intent.

Defence lawyer Thaer Massoud denied this, and called the judgement "extreme". In Waldmann's case, the judge accepted the defence argument that the German did not know the pieces from Fitton were antiquities.

[With inputs from agencies]
 

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