An Iraqi court has overturned the case of a British tourist sentenced to 15 years in jail after he was accused of stealing antiquities from an archaeological site in southern Iraq in March.
Speaking to Agence France-Presse, Jim Fitton’s lawyer Thaer Saoud announced that Iraq’s Court of Cassation overturned the man’s case, adding that he “will soon be free” after spending several weeks in Baghdad’s Rusafa prison.
“We were informed this morning that the appeals court has decided to quash the verdict of the Felony Court, to fully recognize Jim’s innocence in this case, and to process his immediate release from a 15-year prison sentence in Baghdad,” Sam Tasker, Fitton’s 27-year-old son-in-law, said.
“We understand that this process is underway. He is still in prison this evening but will soon be released,” Tasker added. “We will not be doing any press interviews or elaborating at all about the situation until he is home, as we don’t want to inflame the wrong groups or put him at any risk. Once he is home, we will celebrate and take some time to recover as a family, and will be happy to tell the story to anyone who will listen.”
Fitton, a retired 66-year-old British geologist from Bath, England, was arrested while trying to leave Baghdad International Airport on March 20 with 12 stones and shards of broken pottery. He acquired the antiquities during an organized geology and archaeology tour in the Sumerian site of Eridu in southern Iraq, according to reports.
Before his sentencing, Fitton explained that he did not know it was illegal to take the antiquities since their tour guide, Geoff Hann, purportedly encouraged them to take the antique stones and shards during the tour.
Besides Fitton, an unidentified South African woman and Volker Waldmann, a German national, had also taken some antiquities from the archaeological site, Saoud said. While the woman managed to board her plane and leave Iraq due to some confusion with customs at the airport, Waldmann was arrested and later acquitted after arguing that Fitton was the one who gave him two pocketed antiquities.
Fitton, who lives in Malaysia with his wife Sarijah, was found guilty under a 2002 Saddam Hussein-era law made to prevent the looting of Iraq’s cultural heritage, which carries a maximum penalty of death. However, some law experts reportedly argued that this law should not have been applied to Fitton’s case.
“It is impossible to imagine the stress that Jim and his family have endured over the past few months,” said Liberal Democrat MP for Bath Wera Hobhouse. “Jim and his family have shown incredible strength and should be extremely proud of the role they have played in pressuring the government to act.”
“This has been an incredibly anxious time and the government should consider how to improve the way they respond to these cases in the first instance,” Hobhouse continued. “This is a testament to the hard work of the consulate team, Foreign Office officials and, of course, Jim’s family.”
Leila Fitton, one of Fitton’s two children, started a Change.org petition to help her father avoid the death penalty in Iraq. The petition has received over 357,000 signatures as of this writing.
Featured Image via NBC News