BAGHDAD (AP) – A British national accused by Iraq of collecting small archaeological fragments will be tried next week on charges potentially punishable by death, his Baghdad lawyer said Wednesday.
Retired geologist Jim Fitton, 66, was arrested in March at the Baghdad airport after Iraqi customs officials found him in possession of pottery fragments taken from an ancient site in southern Iraq. A German citizen accompanying him was also charged, but details of his case have not been made public.
Fitton will stand trial before Iraq’s Felony Court this Sunday, his lawyer, Thair Soud, told The Associated Press.
The charges against him are based on Iraq’s opaque antiquities laws and are punishable by death. However, Fitton’s legal team and a British official following the case have said they believe this outcome will be unlikely.
During the trial, Soud will have to prove to a panel of judges that Fitton did not harbor any criminal intentions when he picked up shards of pottery found strewn across the desert landscape during a tourism expedition to Eridu, an ancient Mesopotamian site in what is now Dhi Qar province. In total, 12 fragments of pottery and other shards were found in Fitton’s possession by Iraqi authorities.
Soud had drafted a proposal under Iraqi law to have the case closed before a trial takes place on the grounds that it could harm Iraq’s national interests. Tourism is a nascent industry in the country, but the government introduced visas on arrival last year to encourage international visitors to come and tour its many archaeological sites.
Fitton’s family has petitioned the British Foreign Office to assist Soud in submitting his proposal to Iraq’s public prosecutor, garnering over 100,000 signatures. Fitton missed his daughter Leila Fitton’s wedding in Malaysia, which took place last Sunday. She said she was “heartbroken” by his absence.
Concerns grew shortly after Fitton’s arrest when Shiite militia groups published posts on social media that included his passport details and accused the British government of attempting to intervene with Iraqi judicial procedures.