A British citizen has been sentenced by an Iraqi court to 15 years in prison after being convicted of attempting to smuggle artefacts out of the country.
The verdict handed down to retired geologist Jim Fitton shocked the court in Baghdad, including his defence lawyer.
He and his family have argued that Fitton, 66, had no criminal intent.
A German national tried with Fitton was found not to have had criminal intent in the case and will be released.
“I thought the worst-case scenario would be one year, with suspension,” Fitton’s lawyer Thair Soud, visibly shocked, told the Associated Press.
Judge Jabir Abd Jabir found that, according to the government’s investigation, Fitton had criminal intent to smuggle the artefacts that he had picked up and intended to transport them out of the country.
The two men first appeared in court on May 15 wearing yellow detainees’ uniforms, telling judges they had not acted with criminal intent and had no idea they might have broken local laws.
Fitton said he “suspected” the items he collected were ancient fragments, but that “at the time I didn’t know about Iraqi laws”, or that taking the shards was not permitted.
Fitton said as a geologist he was in the habit of collecting such fragments as a hobby and had no intention to sell them.
In his defence, Mr Soud said Fitton waited for weeks while in custody before hiring him as his legal counsel, arguing that this makes the point that the Briton had no idea of the severity of the case or the value of the goods found in his possession.
The judge, however, did not consider Mr Soud’s arguments that laid out Fitton’s ignorance of Iraqi laws and the value of the items he picked up.
Fitton and the German national, Volker Waldman, were arrested in Baghdad airport on March 20 after airport security discovered the items in their luggage.
They had been part of a tourism expedition across the country’s ancient sites.
Fitton’s family grew worried when he did not arrive on a scheduled flight back to Kuala Lumpur, where he resides with his wife, on March 20.
They later learned that Fitton, a well-travelled geologist for oil and gas companies, had been taken to an airport holding cell, Fitton’s daughter Leila told AP last month.
Frustrated by perceived inaction on the part of the British Foreign Office to intervene and assist in Fitton’s case, his family started a petition that has garnered more than 100,000 signatures.
The British diplomatic mission in Baghdad has not commented on its involvement in the case and the British consul in Iraq, who attended the court session on Monday, left following the sentencing without making any comments.
In total, 12 fragments of pottery and other shards were found in Fitton’s possession by Iraqi authorities, all of them collected as souvenirs, Fitton’s family says, during a group tourism expedition to Eridu, an ancient Mesopotamian site in what is now Dhi Qar province.
The site is said to be among the oldest sites belonging to that civilisation.
Controversy, however, remains about the items that Fitton had picked up. A report by the Iraqi Culture Ministry stated they were over 200 years old, without offering any further explanation about their provenance. But any item less than 1,500 years old disqualifies it from being from antiquity, a period from the beginnings of Western civilization to about 450 AD.
The items were not shown in court. Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mr Waldman’s defence team has said the German tourist had been carrying two pieces for Fitton but that he did not pick them up from the site.
Fitton’s lawyer said he intends to appeal against the sentence immediately. It is not clear if Fitton can serve out his sentence in his home country, this would require a bilateral agreement between Iraq and the UK.