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Iraqi court acquits Briton jailed accused of stealing antiquities

James Fitton, 66, a retired British geologist (L) and Volker Waldmann, 60, a Berlin psychologist, arrive for their trial in Baghdad in May. AFP

An Iraqi court on Tuesday overturned the conviction of a British man accused of stealing antiquities on a recent trip to Iraq. Retired geologist James Fitton, 66, was on a tour organised by a small British company that specialises in visiting archaeological sites.

He was stopped at Baghdad International Airport in early June, where officials accused him and a German national, Volker Waldmann, who was also on the tour, of stealing antiquities. Mr Waldmann was acquitted at a trial in Baghdad on June 6, but Mr Fitton was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Geoff Hann, an 85-year-old travel enthusiast who ran the tour company Hinterland Travel, a company that specialised in organising Iraq tours, died of a stroke in a Baghdad hospital, under police guard following the arrest.

Mr Fitton’s lawyer Thair Soud told The National that Iraq’s Court of Cassation has ordered the “immediate release” of his client due to lack of evidence. Mr Soud said Mr Fitton would soon be released.

“We are very pleased by the decision, but we are still waiting for his release,” his son-in-law, Sam Tasker, told AFP in a phone call.

Mr Fitton had been charged under a 2002 law against “intentionally taking or trying to take out of Iraq an antiquity”. According to statements from customs officers and witnesses, Mr Fitton’s baggage contained about a dozen stone fragments, pieces of pottery or ceramics.

When the judge in the original trial asked Mr Fitton why he tried to take the artefacts out of Iraq, he cited his “hobby”. He said he did not mean to do anything illegal, but the judge concluded there was criminal intent.

The maximum penalty for the offence is death by hanging, but Mr Fitton was sentenced to 15 years because of his “advanced age”, the judge in the original trial said.

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Mr Fitton’s lawyer launched an appeal just over a month ago.

The case comes at a time when the war-ravaged country, whose tourism infrastructure is almost non-existent, is tentatively opening to visitors.

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