British tourist sentenced to 15 years in Iraq for stealing antiques

Baghdad (CNN) – A 66-year-old British man has been sentenced to 15 years in prison in Iraq after he was found guilty of stealing antiques while on an archaeological tour of the country, his lawyer has said.

Fitton’s family, who say they fear the retired geologist could die while serving his sentence, said they were “crushed” by Monday’s verdict and have called on the British government to seek release.

According to a petition launched by his family, Fitton was arrested on March 20 at Baghdad International Airport when 12 fragments were found by customs officers in his luggage. The fragments were sent to the Iraqi National Museum for analysis and were classified as objects, the petition states.

Fitton was charged with attempting to smuggle items out of the country under ancient Iraqi law.

A German man who was also arrested in March, Volker Waldmann, was found not guilty due to lack of evidence, and was released on Monday, according to Thair Soud, Fitton’s lawyer.

On the petition side, Fitton’s family said he was on a geology and archeology tour of Iraq’s ancient ancient city of Eridu when he picked up the 12 fragments. They said there were no guards or signs prohibiting the removal of items.

Soud says his client did not know what the items were and had been retrieved from a landfill in an archeological site. He said his client loves stones and collects them from every place he visits, claiming he had no criminal intent.

The decision will be appealed, says Soud.

“We are absolutely devastated by this news,” Fitton’s family told CNN. “For a man of Jim’s age, 15 years in an Iraqi prison is tantamount to a death sentence. Especially for such a trivial and dubious crime, a crime that Jim was not even aware of when he committed it.”

“We are completely devastated that our own efforts, a strong legal defense and constant campaigning have led to this result.”

The family also spoke of frustration over the lack of support from British authorities to help with Fitton’s situation.

“We are disappointed, in fact stunned, at our own government’s total lack of action in this matter to date,” they said. “We raise an appeal and will continue to fight for Jim’s freedom, and urge the government to support us in all possible ways and to open lines of communication with us at the senior level.”

Asked about Fitton’s case, a spokesman for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office spokesman told CNN: “We are providing consular assistance to a British citizen in Iraq, and continue to support his family. We are in touch with local authorities.”

Top photo: Jim Fitton, in the middle, was found guilty of attempting to smuggle antiques. The German tourist Volker Waldmann, on the right, was found not guilty due to lack of evidence. Credit: Hadi Mizban / AP

Tasmiyah Randeree in Abu Dhabi and Benjamin Brown in London contributed to this story