British Retiree Could Face The Death Penalty After Allegedly Trying To Smuggle Stones Out Of Iraq

Published May 6, 2022

66-year-old retired geologist Jim Fitton pocketed a few stones at the ancient site of Eridu in southern Iraq and was later arrested at the airport when officials searched his bags.

Jim Fitton

Jim FittonJim Fitton’s family has started a petition online urging for him to be freed.

To Jim Fitton, the rocks and shards of pottery lying in the sand in Eridu, Iraq, didn’t look like much. The 66-year-old picked up a couple to take home as souvenirs and continued with his tour. But Fitton was arrested at the airport — and may now face the death penalty for smuggling historic artifacts.

“Iraqi law says if anyone is convicted of this crime, they are punishable by execution. Full stop,” Fitton’s son-in-law, Sam Tasker, told The Guardian. “There’s no range or gradation of sentence, or any allowance for mitigating circumstances. By the letter of the law, if Jim is found guilty of what he is accused of, he will be executed.”

Fitton, a native of Bath, England, who lives in Malaysia, was on an archeology tour when his group stopped in Eridu. According to his family, Fitton and other members of the tour were told that it was perfectly acceptable to pick up rocks and pieces of pottery which were scattered in the sand.

“These fragments were in the open, unguarded and with no signage warning against removal,” they wrote in an online petition urging for Fitton to be freed. “Tour leaders also collected the shards as souvenirs at the site in Eridu. Tour members were told that this would not be an issue, as the broken shards had no economic or historical value.”

But on March 20, 2022, Fitton and a German member of his tour were arrested at the airport after officials found the rocks and shards in their baggage. They’ve been held in Iraq ever since, as Fitton’s family works feverishly to free him.

According to them, they haven’t had much help from the British government. Tasker told The Independent that their family feels “completely abandoned” by the Foreign Office.

Rocks In Iraq

Jim FittonAccording to Fitton’s family, the rocks Fitton picked up were “in the open, unguarded and with no signage warning against removal.”

According to The Guardian, the Foreign Office minister, Amanda Milling, has acknowledged the case and reached out to Iraq about the possibility that Fitton could face the death penalty. But Fitton’s family says that the British government isn’t doing enough to help.

“[A]s a British citizen abroad do not expect the Foreign Office to save you if you get into trouble outside of your control, because clearly they won’t, “Tasker told The Independent. “At least it seems to us at the moment.”

He added: “And now we find ourselves in the situation where we’re just throwing everything at the wall now to see what sticks because we just don’t have the time to waste anymore.”

The family believes that Fitton will likely stand trial on May 7 or May 8, according to different sources. They’re hopeful that Iraqi officials will take Fitton’s age into account, as well as the fact that he’d meant no harm when he picked up the rocks in Eridu.

“He’s got no criminal record,” Tasker told The Guardian. “He’s a geologist jobbing around the world for 40 years. He’s a hugely experienced traveler, a wonderfully erudite man. He is the most multicultural, respectful man I’ve ever met. A crime involving devaluing the cultural history of another nation is the last thing Jim would want to do.”

Fitton’s daughter, Leila, echoed the statement, telling The Independent, “[He’s] a real nerd when it comes to geology. He’s a very quiet person, very reserved, he loves his books. And he’s one of my best friends.”

For now, Fitton’s family’s petition has reached over 120,000 signatures. Though they say that Fitton has kept a “stiff upper lip” during his six weeks of imprisonment, they’re eager to bring him home. And they insist that the punishment, death, does not fit Fitton’s offense.

“Please help free our father,” Fitton’s family wrote in their petition. “He is a retired geologist and a loving family man, not a criminal. The foreign office needs to do everything they can to save his life and bring him home.”

After reading about the British tourist who may face the death penalty for picking up stones in Iraq, discover the story of how Hobby Lobby stole Iraqi artifacts. Or, delve into the controversial legacy of Gertrude Bell, the British “Desert Queen” of Iraq.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a double degree in American History and French.