A photo of Jim Fitton and his family included in the family's petition for his release (screenshot Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

A retired British geologist could face the death penalty in Iraq after he allegedly attempted to smuggle ancient artifacts out of the country. He will stand trial before Iraq’s Felony Court this Sunday, May 15, according to the Associated Press.

Jim Fitton, who now lives in Malaysia, was on an archaeological tourism trip near Eridu in the Dhi Qar province. Eridu, an ancient Sumerian city referenced in mythology as the civilization’s oldest, was inhabited from around 5,000 to 600 BCE.

Fitton has been in custody since March 20, when Iraqi officials found 12 small shards of pottery in his luggage at the Baghdad airport. According to a Change.org petition started by Fitton’s two children and son-in-law, which has received almost 270,000 signatures, the statutory punishment for smuggling historical artifacts out of Iraq is execution. (Fitton’s legal team has said it believes this outcome is unlikely.)

Thair Soud, Fitton’s Iraqi lawyer, previously attempted to close the case before it reached trial on the grounds that it would hurt Iraq’s growing tourist economy. Now, Soud will need to prove in court that Fitton did not have any criminal intent. Fitton’s children told the BBC that he did not know the objects were historically significant.

Wera Hobhouse, Fitton’s representative in the British Parliament, brought the case to the attention of the British government weeks ago. “It is an absolute travesty for Jim and his family that the Foreign Office has refused to get involved despite the family’s lawyer advising that an intervention would make a difference in this case,” Hobhouse told the Guardian on May 5. “This is a life-or-death situation.”

In a parliament meeting on Wednesday, May 11, Hobhouse again raised Jim Fitton’s case.

“He is sitting in a cell in Iraq, he has missed his daughter’s wedding, and he potentially faces the death penalty. His family are worried sick,” Hobhouse said, again urging the British government to intervene.

James Cleverly, minister of state for Europe and North America, stated, “We cannot, of course, interfere or seek to interfere with the judicial process of another country, just as we would not expect interference in our own judicial process,” adding that workers from the British consulate in Iraq had visited Fitton four times.

Multiple other members of the parliament continued to press Cleverly on what the foreign ministry was doing to help Fitton, but his answers remained vague.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.