A two-week adventure trip to the ruins of historical sites in southern Iraq descended into a nightmare for an international group of archaeology enthusiasts, with one dead and a second sentenced to 15 years in prison, while a third spent over two months languishing in jail.
The ordeal began when the group tried to fly out from Baghdad international airport in March after visiting the ruins of the ancient city of Eridu in southern Mesopotamia, near modern-day Dhi Qar.
Geoff Hann, Jim Fitton, Volker Waldmann, and Hann’s assistant Glenys Gillespie were stopped after security personnel at the heavily-secured Baghdad airport complex found 32 broken pieces of pottery and stones in their luggage.
Hann, an 85-year-old British travel guide, had suffered a stroke days earlier and was in a wheelchair. This would be the last trip he organised through his Hinterland travel company that specialises in excursions to countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Retired British geologist Fitton, 66, and German national Waldmann, 60, waited for airport personnel to clear them to proceed through to the airport, while their other travelling companions and Hann and Gillespie, a South African national, went ahead.
But chaotic scenes unfolded in the following hours, as Fitton and Waldmann were surrounded by airport personnel taking photographs of their belongings. The pair were subsequently detained under suspicion of “stealing artefacts” from Iraq and later formally arrested on suspicion of “smuggling artefacts,” and placed in the airport’s jail.
Hann meanwhile was denied boarding and transferred to a hospital in Baghdad where in April he died. Gillespie was the only member of the group initially stopped who was able to leave Iraq that night.
The news that a group of foreigners had apparently tried to steal artefacts from the country spread like wildfire on Iraqi social media. In a phone interview, Fitton’s Iraqi lawyer, Thair Ihssan told VICE World News: “From day one, the names and photos of the group were put out by a number of social media pages that posted pictures of the people detained in the airport, with flashy claims that the government in Baghdad has already set them free.”
He added: “The distortion of the facts around the case with photos of a pile of other artefacts shared on social media played a huge role in the progression of the case, and put immense pressure on the court.”
Under an Iraqi law passed in 2002 aimed at protecting the country's ancient historical artefacts found in tens of sites spread around the two rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, home to very early human civilisations known as Mesopotamia, people convicted of looting or smuggling historical objects out of the country face lengthy prison sentences to even the death penalty.
Two weeks after Fitton and Waldmann were arrested, Iraq’s state board of heritage and antiquities said that the pieces in the group’s luggage were of historical value.
In court in Baghdad, Fitton said he had no intention of smuggling the objects found in his luggage but was taking the pottery fragments home as a souvenir. Waldmann was acquitted after Fitton told judges that he himself had taken 12 of the items and that the German had only carried two pieces for him.
Judges reviewed the evidence gathered around the case, including CCTV footage of the chaotic moments at the airport checkpoint and statements from airport personnel. Then on the 6th of June came the hammer blow: Fitton was sentenced to 15 years in jail, a sentence that came as a huge shock to his legal team, his family, and international observers.
The court also dropped charges against Hann over the 20 pieces that he had apparently removed, owing to the fact he was dead.
Fitton’s family has advocated for his release from early on and urged the UK Foreign Office to help bring him home.
But the trial came at the worst possible time for Fitton. Iraq’s judiciary has found itself embroiled in the country’s political crisis, caused by an inconclusive election in 2021, and a failure to form a government. That’s led to Iraq’s political rivals taking each other to court, with the head of Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council recently complaining about the immense pressure being put on the judiciary by different political factions.
So any attempt to intervene by the UK could add fuel to the already heated debate over foreign countries meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. Western countries, particularly the UK and US, have pushed for a more independent judiciary in Iraq. To complicate things further for the UK side, pro-Iranian parties have kept a close tab on Fitton’s case since day one, and their media outlets have portrayed his group as a “gang” smuggling out Iraqi artefacts.
“It is clear that the judges approached the law of preserving artefacts very nominally rather than objectively, and with the report from the archaeology board saying that the fragments were older than 200 years old, it convinced the judges a crime had been carried out, and they passed such a shocking verdict," said Ihssan, Fitton’s lawyer.
“I told the court that Mr Fitton thought the broken pieces he picked up were merely a souvenir, and we provided more than seven pieces of evidence that my client had no intention of any crime since he made no effort of hiding, and concealing the pieces, and was unaware of these pieces of broken pottery had any value.”
Fitton is currently in Baghdad’s general prison alongside inmates convicted of a range of crimes. He has lodged an appeal at a higher court that could be heard soon.
His lawyer told VICE World News that the investigation into the pottery and stone fragments at the heart of the case was incredibly flawed, saying that the archaeology board had not said how valuable the materials were.
Ihssan also questioned the current location of the fragments, if they were so valuable and of such historical importance, why had they not been placed in a museum?
“The question now is, where are the pieces? And if you have put them in the trash can, in what world is it fair to sentence someone for 15 years for something already thrown away?”