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British, German tourists deny smuggling antiquities out of Iraq

Jim Fitton and Volker Waldmann were arrested separately at Baghdad airport when found in possession of ancient pottery shards, and theoretically face death penalty if found guilty

This undated photo provided by the Fitton family shows Jim Fitton with his wife Sarijah. (Fitton family via AP)
This undated photo provided by the Fitton family shows Jim Fitton with his wife Sarijah. (Fitton family via AP)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — A British tourist and a German tourist who were accused of smuggling ancient shards out of Iraq appeared in a Baghdad court in yellow detainees’ uniforms on Sunday, telling judges that they had not acted with criminal intent, and that they had no idea they might have broken local laws.

The trial of Jim Fitton, 66, is grabbing international attention at a time when Iraq seeks to open up its nascent tourism sector. The session also revealed first details about a second defendant, identified as Volker Waldmann of Germany.

The three-judge panel in Baghdad’s felony court scheduled the next hearing for May 22. The court must determine whether the defendants had sought to profit by taking the 12 items, which were found in their possession as they attempted to fly out of Baghdad airport on March 20.

Fitton and Waldmann appeared in court in detainees’ yellow and were asked to explain their actions.

Waldmann said the two items found in his possession were not his and instead had been given to him by Fitton to carry. “But did you put them in your bag?” asked head judge Jaber Abdel Jabir. “Didn’t you know these were Iraqi antiquities?”

Waldmann said he did not pick up the items from the site, but only agreed to carry them for Fitton.

Recently recovered antiquities are displayed at the foreign ministry, in Baghdad, Iraq, August 3, 2021. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

Fitton said he “suspected” the items he collected were ancient fragments, but that “at the time I didn’t know about Iraqi laws,” or that taking the shards was not permitted. Fitton said as geologist he was in the habit of collecting such fragments as a hobby and had no intention to sell them.

He said it was not clear to him at the time that picking them up from the site was a criminal offense. “There were fences, no guards or signage” at the sites, he told the court.

“These places, in name and by definition, are ancient sites,” Jabir responded. “One doesn’t have to say it is forbidden.”

When Fitton said some of the shards were “no larger than my fingernail,” Jabir said this was not relevant. “Size doesn’t matter,” he told him.

Based on the law, both men could face the death penalty, an outcome that legal experts said was unlikely. British and German embassy officials were present at the court but have not issued detailed public statements about the case in order not to jeopardize the proceedings, they said.

The defense plans to submit more evidence to clear the men, Fitton’s defense lawyer, Thair Soud, told The Associated Press. This includes testimony from government officials present at the site where the fragments were collected, he said.

“[Their testimony] is pending approval from their official directorates,” he said.

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