A retired British geologist who faces the death penalty in Iraq over accusations he tried to smuggle artefacts out of the country said he had no idea he was breaking the law.
Jim Fitton, 66, collected 12 stones and shards of broken pottery as souvenirs while visiting a site in Eridu as part of an organised geology and archaeology tour.
The father-of-two appeared with Volker Waldmann, a German tourist, before a panel of judges at a Baghdad court on Sunday wearing a yellow detainees’ uniform.
The items were found in the possession of the pair as their group prepared to fly out of Baghdad airport on March 20.
The men told the court they had not acted with criminal intent.
Fitton said he ‘suspected’ the items he collected were ancient fragments.
But he told the court ‘at the time I didn’t know about Iraqi laws’ or that taking the shards was not permitted.
The court heard Mr Fitton was in the habit of collecting such fragments as a hobby and had no intention to sell them given his background as a geologist.
But stressing it was not clear to him that picking them up from the site was a criminal offence, he said of the sites: ‘There were fences, no guards or signage.’
Head judge Jaber Abdel Jabir responded: ‘These places, in name and by definition, are ancient sites.
‘One doesn’t have to say it is forbidden.’
When Fitton said some of the shards were ‘no larger than my fingernail’, the head judge said this was not relevant and noted: ‘Size doesn’t matter.’
Waldmann said the two items found in his possession were not his and instead had been given to him by Mr Fitton to carry.
The three-judge panel in Baghdad’s felony court scheduled a second hearing for May 22 and the court must determine whether the defendants had sought to profit by taking the items.
Both men could face the death penalty, according to Iraqi law, but it has been suggested such an outcome is unlikely.
Mr Fitton’s family said today that they remain hopeful he will be returned ‘safe and sound soon’.
His son-in-law Sam Tasker, 27, who lives in Bath, Somerset, said: ‘We note that the judge has postponed the hearing to next weekend; we remain hopeful that Jim will be able to continue to articulate himself well as we believe that his innocence is self evident.
‘We are hopeful that he is returned to us safe and sound soon so that we can all recover in peace from this terrible ordeal.’
Mr Fitton lives in Malaysia with his wife Sarijah while his daughter Leila Fitton, 31, and her husband Sam Tasker are based in Bath, Somerset.
Their petition calling for UK ministers to intervene to help free Fitton has collected more than 271,000 signatures.
The case was also raised in the House of Commons during an urgent question session last week.
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said the British ambassador in Iraq has raised the case four times with Iraqi authorities.
But Mr Tasker said the family has still not spoken to any UK minister regarding the case, adding: ‘We are focusing on the trial and are no longer actively lobbying the foreign office to intervene as it feels like a lost cause.’
The defence plans to submit more evidence to clear the men, Mr Fitton’s defence lawyer Thair Soud told the Associated Press.
He said this includes evidence from government officials present at the site where the fragments were collected
‘(Their evidence) is pending approval from their official directorates,’ he told the news agency.
Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, who represents the Bath constituency, said: ‘I am pleased that the judge has postponed the hearing to allow for additional evidence to be submitted.
‘Jim’s family have accepted that they will receive no further help on behalf of the Foreign Office and they are now fully focused on the trial.’
She added: ‘The Foreign Office has set a dangerous precedent for British citizens who are in trouble abroad and I hope that they will commit to a root-and-branch review of how the Foreign Office responds to situations like this in the future.’
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