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Ministers urged to help geologist at risk of death penalty in Iraq

Jim Fitton with his wife Sarijah Fitton (Family handout/PA)
Jim Fitton with his wife Sarijah Fitton (Family handout/PA)

A retired British geologist is at risk of facing the death penalty after being accused of attempting to smuggle historic artefacts, according to his family.

UK ministers have faced calls to intervene to help “make a difference” in the case of Jim Fitton, 66, who has been detained in Iraq.

Father-of-two Mr Fitton, who lives in Malaysia, was held over smuggling allegations during his first visit to the country for a geology and archaeology tour.

Mr Fitton with his family (Family handout/PA)

His children – Joshua and Leila, and Leila’s husband Sam Tasker – say in a petition launched to press the UK Government to act: “Whilst on the tour, our father visited historical sites around Iraq, where his tour group found fragments of stones and shards of broken pottery in piles on the ground.

“These fragments were in the open, unguarded and with no signage warning against removal.

“Tour leaders also collected the shards as souvenirs at the site in Eridu. Tour members were told that this would not be an issue, as the broken shards had no economic or historical value.”

It added: “We think that our father may be put on trial the week commencing May 8, after Eid in Iraq.

“We have days to save him before sentencing and we need the Foreign Office to help by intervening in his case now. Our lawyer has drafted a proposal for cessation of the case and the immediate repatriation of our father, which requires the backing of the Foreign Office to put to the Iraqi judiciary.”

Mr Tasker, in a statement, explained: “Jim would often bring home small souvenirs from his trips to remember the journey by and share his experiences with us.

“To him this was no more significant than bringing home a small stone from the beach to remember a special family holiday. The items are widely agreed to be valueless.

“This is the offence that now sees my father-in-law facing a potential death sentence under article 41 of the Iraqi artefacts law no.55, of 2002.”

Mr Tasker said Mr Fitton and a German man on the trip were arrested after the group’s baggage was checked at the airport, with 12 shards said to have been recovered from his luggage.

The incident took place on March 20 and a serious illness to the group’s tour guide was also reported.

Mr Tasker is a constituent of Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, who has raised the case in the House of Commons and urged ministers to respond to the “incredibly serious” issue.

Mr Fitton was on his first visit to Iraq for a geology and archaeology tour (Family handout/PA)

She said: “The situation surrounding Jim Fitton and his German counterpart is deeply worrying and my thoughts are with them and their families during this difficult period. It is impossible to imagine the concern and worry that Jim and his family are going through.

“From speaking with Jim’s family it is clear that he would not intentionally disrespect or appropriate the rich and fascinating culture of the region.

“I have written to the Foreign Office, been in touch with the consulate support services, and contacted the minister’s office directly but so far the response has been disappointing.

“Jim’s lawyer has advised that an intervention from the British Government will make a difference in this case. That is why I am urging the Government to intervene to make Jim’s release more likely.

“I am committed to doing everything I can by working with the Government to secure the release of Jim who has been so questionably detained in Iraq. Jim and his German counterpart must be returned safely home to their families.”

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesman said: “We are providing consular support to a British national in Iraq and are in contact with the local authorities.”

Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling, in a letter to Ms Hobhouse on Thursday, said: “We understand the urgency of the case, and have already raised our concerns with the Iraqi authorities regarding the possible imposition of the death penalty in Mr Fitton’s case and the UK’s opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle.”

The family petition can be found here:

https://www.change.org/p/our-father-is-facing-the-death-penalty-in-iraq-freejimfitton