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

Iraq’s felony court has delivered a crushing sentence in the case of Jim Fitton, a retired British geologist who was detained and arrested in March for attempting to smuggle ancient pottery shards out of the country. The 66-year-old man from Bath was found guilty of looting and sentenced to 15 years in an Iraqi prison, as first reported by the Guardian.

Fitton was stopped at the Baghdad airport after an archaeological tourism trip near Eridu in the Dhi Qar province, a Sumerian city inhabited from around 5,000 to 600 BCE. During a search of his luggage, Iraqi officials found 12 small shards of pottery that Fitton took from the site as souvenirs from his trip, insisting he did not know he was breaking the law.

Though Fitton’s family was initially terrified at the possibility that he could face the death sentence, launching a Change.org petition that received over 300,000 signatures, the verdict of 15 years of imprisonment brings only partial relief.

“We feel helpless, we’re so broken,” said Fitton’s daughter, Leila Fitton, in an interview with Good Morning Britain.

The family had petitioned the British government to intervene on behalf of Fitton prior to sentencing, without success. Wera Hobhouse, Fitton’s representative in the British Parliament, brought the case to the attention of the British government, but the Foreign Office declined to arbitrate on Fitton’s behalf. Hobhouse told the Guardian that the government had “set a dangerous precedent for British citizens who are in trouble abroad.”

Thair Soud, Fitton’s Iraqi lawyer, plans to appeal the ruling immediately. “The court’s decision was not proper for two reasons,” he said. “The first is because it did not apply the law [correctly], and secondly because of the severity of the punishment.”

“They accused my client according to Iraqi antiquities law which covers statues, pottery heads and things that have archaeological value,” said Soud. “We have given the court substantial evidence that he didn’t mean to steal antiques and all he had on his person was abandoned stuff which doesn’t have any value.”

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...