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British tourist is arrested for stealing historic Iraqi artifacts

A retired geologist from Bath, UK, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempting to steal historic artifacts whilst on a trip to Iraq. 

Jim Fitton, 66, claims he didn’t know he was breaking Iraqi law when he picked up shards of ancient pottery and placed them in his backpack.

At the time, Fitton was on an archaeological and geological tour of Iraq. He also took 12 stones from an ancient site, which weren’t discovered until airport officials found them in his luggage days later.

Fitton’s family have since rallied the national press, calling for the UK government to free him from what – at age 66 – equates to a life sentence in an Iraqi prison.

Outlets from the BBC to The Guardian are stressing Fitton’s ignorance. That he simply didn’t know he was doing anything wrong, and that such a ‘trivial and dubious crime’ should not warrant a 15 year jail sentence.

Fitton’s family are urging the British government to free him, stating they were ‘absolutely shattered’ and ‘heartbroken’ by news of his arrest:

‘We are raising an appeal and will continue to fight for Jim’s freedom, and urge the government to support us in every way possible and to open lines of communication with us at a senior level.’

For a white British man of Jim’s age – a man with no prior convictions, who has dedicated his life to the study of geology and enjoyed a successful academic career – to be arrested under these circumstances is understandably saddening and shocking.

The British media are also championing his release; ‘Jim Fitton, 66, who is originally from Bath, collected 12 stones and shards of broken pottery during a recent geology and archaeology tour of [Iraq]’ said the BBC in an article this week.

Insignificant as it may seem, this choice of language points to the long history of British colonialism and cultural looting that underpins Fitton’s arrest.

According to these articles, Fitton ‘collected’, he didn’t ‘steal’. He was simply unaware of the magnitude of his actions, an innocent mistake by a British tourist.

But when it comes to the complicated ethics of cultural representation, ownership, and provenance, language is everything.

The way that Britain has framed its acquisition of stolen artifacts has hinged on this ambiguous tension between ‘stolen’ and ‘collected’, ‘looted’ and ‘acquired’.

It is underpinned by years of British righteousness, an assumption that what is not ours can simply be picked up, ‘collected’, claimed as our own – without consequence.

This language is what frames our museums and history books. It’s what has concealed the truth about Britain’s role in colonialism, the reality of how we acquired the objects that fill our museums, schools, and galleries.

Only now are we starting to question our rights to these objects. But change remains stagnant, and the public response to Fitton’s arrest highlights a denial to Britain’s systemic power and greed.

When Fitton’s verdict was handed down on Monday, the court was left shocked. ‘I thought the worst-case scenario would be one year, with suspension’ said Fitton’s lawyer, Thair Soud.

By taking the artifacts – which were dated to be over 200 years old – and intending to transport them out of the country, Judge Jabir Abd Jabir found Fitton had criminal intent to smuggle them.

The verdict was based on Iraq’s antiquities laws, which could potentially have been punished by the death sentence.

According to his family, the stones and pottery fragments taken by Fitton were collected as souvenirs during a group tourism expedition in Eridu, an ancient Mesopotamian site in what is now the Dhi Qar province.

There is still debate as to whether he’ll be able to serve time in the UK, given the prisoner transfer treaty between Iraq and Great Britain, and Fitton’s family anxiously await news of his well-being whilst international attention grows.

Fitton’s verdict is harrowing, and I don’t doubt that his intentions were innocent enough. But stories like these are a reminder of the censored history Britain has cultivated.

We live in a country whose lack of accountability has fostered a culture of ignorance. An ignorance that allows people like Fitton to take things that don’t belong to them under the guise of ‘academic interest’ and ‘curiosity’.

This ignorance has enabled such actions to go unpunished for so long, that when eventually facing the consequences, perpetrators believe themselves to be the victims of an unjust and corrupt legal system.

Like other countries impacted by colonialism and conflict, Iraq has recently pushed for a recovery of thousands of ancient artifacts that were plundered since the US invasion. Many of these artifacts remain in museums and personal collections across North America.

The founder of Iraqi tour operator Bil Weekend said the case highlighted the need to inform tourists about efforts to protect the country’s heritage.

‘That’s why tourists should choose the tour operator wisely!’ tweeted Ali Al Makhomzy, ‘The first thing we mention is not to pick up objects & talk about the importance of heritage protection in Iraq’.

 

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