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British geologist facing death penalty in Iraq ‘heartbroken’ after missing daughter’s wedding

A retired British geologist at risk of being executed overseas is ‘heartbroken’ at missing his daughter’s wedding celebrations, his family said.

Jim Fitton, 66, was sent photographs of Leila and her husband Sam Tasker’s festivities as he continues to be detained in Iraq over artefact smuggling allegations.

Ms Fitton, 31, and Mr Tasker, 27, held a small ceremony – which was restricted to close friends and British family due to Covid – in their home city of Bath, Somerset, last August.

Mr Fitton, pictured here with his wife and two children, Joshua and Leila, missed the latters wedding celebrations due to his imprisonment

A larger bash with TV and film art department freelancer Ms Fitton’s extended family in Malaysia, where her father and mother Sarijah also live, took place on Friday and Sunday.

Mr Fitton is to be sentenced later this month after being arrested in the middle eastern country in March when he was found with broken pottery shards in his luggage.

The father-of-two was on an organised archeology and geology tour of Eridu, in the southern Iraq when he was told it was ok to take the shards by a guide, his family claim. 

Speaking to the PA news agency, Mr Tasker said of his father-in-law: ‘He wasn’t able to give Leila away; her brother had to kind of step up and give her away.

UK ministers have faced calls to intervene to help 'make a difference' in the case of Jim Fitton (pictured with his wife) 66, who has been detained in the Middle-Eastern country

UK ministers have faced calls to intervene to help ‘make a difference’ in the case of Jim Fitton (pictured with his wife) 66, who has been detained in the Middle-Eastern country

His family say that he has been accused of stealing fragments that were in the open at Eridu, an ancient ruin of a city that is found in Iraq, and was once in southern Mesopotamia

His family say that he has been accused of stealing fragments that were in the open at Eridu, an ancient ruin of a city that is found in Iraq, and was once in southern Mesopotamia

‘He was obviously heartbroken and just sent us a message saying, ‘You all look great. Best of luck. All my love to you all.”

He said Mr Fitton, ‘as he has been doing throughout’, has been ‘putting on a brave face and trying not to make it about him, really, which is antithetical to the point because all we’re thinking about is him’.

He added: ‘We sent him some photos across and he remarked that the house looked amazing, because Leila’s mum put a load of work into making the house look nice and getting the flowers and all the rest of it arranged and set up.

‘He apologised for not being there as well, which is obviously out of his control.

‘He seems to be doing OK and I think it was kind of a bittersweet moment for him really; it’s lovely to see the photos and everything but he’d prefer to be with us, of course.’

Mr Tasker, who works in sales support for an outsourcing company, said a ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach was adopted for the celebrations.

He also said: ‘We are just doing everything we can to get political engagement from Foreign Office ministers, really.’

Mr Tasker praised the support from the UK embassy staff in Iraq but said they have ‘one hand tied behind their back by political decision-making’.

He added: ‘That’s what we need to change and that’s what we continue to push for.’

Mr Tasker said his family is ‘grateful’ for the support its campaign has received, adding: ‘We just need to reach critical mass of pressure on the Foreign Office before it’s too late.

‘It’s a shame that we have to approach it in that way but it is what it is.

‘So we continue to push because we can’t do anything else – and we’re not giving up.’

Mr Fitton and a German man were detained at the airport after shards of pottery were found in their luggage

Mr Fitton and a German man were detained at the airport after shards of pottery were found in their luggage

Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling has previously said the UK has ‘raised (its) 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’.

Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, said: ‘At the end of the day the Foreign Office is still abandoning Jim.

‘I cannot understand why they are still refusing to help Jim.’

Ms Hobhouse added: ‘I will be using all of the avenues I can to pressure the Foreign Office to intervene.’

Pictured: Brickwork is seen at the Eridu archaeological site in Iraq (file photo)

Pictured: Brickwork is seen at the Eridu archaeological site in Iraq (file photo)

The law that could see Jim Fitton face the death penalty 

Modern day Iraq occupies the land that was once Mesopotamia, and as a result has a trove of historical sites – including the ancient city of Babylon.

The site in question, Eridu, is found in southern Mesopotamia, and is considered to be the earliest city in the southern region – dating back to approximately 5,400BC.

Archaeological looting in Iraq has taken place since at least the 19th century, and often occurred in the chaos that followed war – including the 2003 Iraq war.

As a result, Iraq has strict laws in place against looting, and anyone found guilty can be severely punished – with large fines, prison sentences and even the death penalty.  

According to Iraq’s law No. 55, antiquities are defined as ‘movable and immovable property which has been built, made, carved, produced, written or painted by man, those age of which is not less than 200 years, as well as human and animal skeletons and plant remains.’

The law says: ‘Discovering, taking, purchasing or receiving as a gift any antiquity or heritage material that originated in Iraq, without promptly notifying and registering the object with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, is a violation of Law Number 55.’

It continues: ‘The penalties for violating Law Number 55 may include incarceration of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 Iraqi Dinars (£55).

‘Illegal excavation (looting) may result in imprisonment for a period of up to 15 years and a fine of two times the value of the damages sustained. And trafficking in antiquities is punishable with a term of imprisonment for a period not to exceed 10 years and a fine of up to 1,000,000 Iraqi Dinars (£550).’

 In 2013, a law was proposed in Iraq that would change the penalties for those found guilty of looting to be less severe. It was not immediately clear if the law passed.

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Ministers face pressure to help Brit who faces Iraq death penalty for trying to take home pottery

Pressure is mounting on ministers to help free a retired British geologist who is facing the death penalty in Iraq after being accused of smuggling.

Jim Fitton is to be sentenced later this month after being arrested in the middle eastern country in March when he was found with broken pottery shards in his luggage.

His family is calling for ministers to help obtain the release of the 66-year-old, and a petition urging them to help has received more than 97,000 signatures in the three days since it was launched. 

The father-of-two was on an organised archeology and geology tour of Eridu, in the southern Iraq when he was told it was ok to take the shards by a guide, his family claim. 

UK ministers have faced calls to intervene to help ‘make a difference’ in the case of Jim Fitton (pictured with his wife) 66, who has been detained in the Middle-Eastern country

However, 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.

He has since been accused of attempting to smuggle historic artefacts out of the country.

The items were judged to be artefacts under Iraqi law and the charge levelled at Mr Fitton states ‘whoever exported or intended to export, deliberately, an antiquity, from Iraq, shall be punishable with execution’. 

Mr Fitton, pictured here with his wife and two children, Joshua and Leila, was on an organised tour when he picked up the pottery

Mr Fitton, pictured here with his wife and two children, Joshua and Leila, was on an organised tour when he picked up the pottery

His case in connection with the March incident is expected to go for sentencing in the week beginning May 8. 

His daughter Leila and her husband Sam Tasker, from Bath, in Somerset, have also disclosed the sentencing is expected to coincide with a long-planned celebration of their wedding.

They said: ‘There is never a good time for something like this to happen but we are one week away from what should be the happiest day of our lives, and the culmination of more than two years of planning, and it’s been turned into an absolute living nightmare.

His family say that he has been accused of stealing fragments that were in the open at Eridu, an ancient ruin of a city that is found in Iraq, and was once in southern Mesopotamia

His family say that he has been accused of stealing fragments that were in the open at Eridu, an ancient ruin of a city that is found in Iraq, and was once in southern Mesopotamia

‘We have accepted the fact that, without timely intervention from the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Jim will be unable to attend this ceremony too.’

Mr Fitton’s family described the response to the petition as ‘unbelievable’, adding in a statement: ‘Jim really appreciates the support from old colleagues, good friends, kindred spirits, and complete strangers who have not allowed this to go unnoticed.

‘We will continue to fight while we continue to have you at our backs.’

Mr Fitton worked as a geologist for oil and gas companies during his career and lives in his adopted home of Malaysia with his wife, Sarijah.

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, has raised his case with ministers in the House of Commons.

The family said their lawyer has drafted a proposal under Iraqi law to have the case closed before trial but they need the Foreign Office to ‘put their weight behind the plan and endorse it’ so they can secure a high-level meeting with judicial officials in the country.

The proposal cites the ‘clear lack of criminality, that Jim is a victim of poor guidance and circumstance, and also cites the huge investment that the UK has made in the Iraqi governmental and judicial framework through FCDO funding in the past few years’.

Mr Fitton and a German man were detained at the airport after shards of pottery were found in their luggage

Mr Fitton and a German man were detained at the airport after shards of pottery were found in their luggage

The family statement, via an update on the petition website, also explained: ‘Leila has not seen Jim for more than two years due to Covid travel restrictions.

‘We held a small Covid wedding ceremony in Bath in August of last year for close friends and our British family members, mostly on my side.

‘We have, since then, been planning a larger celebration in Malaysia with all of Leila’s extended family.

‘This is scheduled on May 8. Obviously there is never a good time for something like this to happen but we are one week away from what should be the happiest day of our lives, and the culmination of more than two years of planning, and it’s been turned into an absolute living nightmare.’

Ms Hobhouse said: ‘It’s impossible to imagine what Jim and his family are going through, especially as Sam and Leila are planning their wedding.

‘We are pressing the Foreign Office to intervene but sadly they are continuing to refuse. 

Pictured: Brickwork is seen at the Eridu archaeological site in Iraq (file photo)

Pictured: Brickwork is seen at the Eridu archaeological site in Iraq (file photo)

‘I cannot understand why the Foreign Office is not intervening when Jim’s life lays in the balance.

‘The Foreign Office must do everything in their power to bring Jim back home to his family.’

The Foreign Office has said it is providing consular support and is in contact with the local authorities.

Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling, in a letter to Ms Hobhouse, said last week: ‘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.

The law that could see Jim Fitton face the death penalty 

Modern day Iraq occupies the land that was once Mesopotamia, and as a result has a trove of historical sites – including the ancient city of Babylon.

The site in question, Eridu, is found in southern Mesopotamia, and is considered to be the earliest city in the southern region – dating back to approximately 5,400BC.

Archaeological looting in Iraq has taken place since at least the 19th century, and often occurred in the chaos that followed war – including the 2003 Iraq war.

As a result, Iraq has strict laws in place against looting, and anyone found guilty can be severely punished – with large fines, prison sentences and even the death penalty.  

According to Iraq’s law No. 55, antiquities are defined as ‘movable and immovable property which has been built, made, carved, produced, written or painted by man, those age of which is not less than 200 years, as well as human and animal skeletons and plant remains.’

The law says: ‘Discovering, taking, purchasing or receiving as a gift any antiquity or heritage material that originated in Iraq, without promptly notifying and registering the object with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, is a violation of Law Number 55.’

It continues: ‘The penalties for violating Law Number 55 may include incarceration of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 Iraqi Dinars (£55).

‘Illegal excavation (looting) may result in imprisonment for a period of up to 15 years and a fine of two times the value of the damages sustained. And trafficking in antiquities is punishable with a term of imprisonment for a period not to exceed 10 years and a fine of up to 1,000,000 Iraqi Dinars (£550).’

 In 2013, a law was proposed in Iraq that would change the penalties for those found guilty of looting to be less severe. It was not immediately clear if the law passed.