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British geologist sentenced to 15 years in Iraqi prison for taking artifacts

British geologist sentenced to 15 years in Iraqi prison for taking artifacts
British geologist Jim Fitton plans to appeal his verdict, after he was sentenced Monday to 15 years in an Iraqi prison for taking artifacts from a site in southern Iraq. Photo courtesy Leila Fitton/Change.org

June 7 (UPI) -- A British geologist jailed in Iraq for collecting artifacts during a trip said he is "shell shocked" over his sentence of 15 years in prison.

Jim Fitton, 66, was expecting a short suspended sentence in Baghdad Monday after he was charged with taking 12 stones and pieces of broken pottery from a site in southern Iraq during an organized tour, according to his family.

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Fitton's son-in-law called the verdict "unjust" and said Fitton was found guilty under a 2002 law -- dating to Saddam Hussein's rule there -- that legal experts said should not have been applied in the case.

"It is just completely mind-blowing that this verdict could be passed when the judge himself accepted that Jim did not have any criminal intent," said Sam Tasker.

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Fitton's lawyer is planning to appeal the verdict. "The court's decision was not proper for two reasons," attorney Thair Soud said. "The first is because it did not apply the law correctly, and secondly because of the severity of the punishment."

Fitton, who has collected artifacts from historical sites around the world, said he had no idea that collecting items from Iraq was illegal. The retired geologist was arrested at Baghdad airport on March 20 along with German national Volker Waldmann, who was acquitted.

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Both were charged under a 2002 law against "intentionally taking or trying to take out of Iraq an antiquity," which carries the maximum sentence of the death penalty.

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The 15-year sentence means Fitton will be in his mid 80s by the time he is released, which his family said "is tantamount to a death sentence."

"My client does not deserve this punishment. The antiques that were found with him were stones and pieces of broken pottery that had no material, or archaeological, value," Soud said. "These are the types of things that you can find in a desert abandoned and without a fence, warning signs, protection or security."

Fitton's family spoke to him Monday for the first time in 95 days. He talked through the "practicalities of making sure there is money to support his wife and family in Malaysia," Tasker said. "And the considerations of 15 years away from his family."

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