Update: Iraq has released a British citizen imprisoned for antiquities smuggling. Jim Fitton, a retired geologist, has left the country, his family said Sunday, per the AP. An appeals court overturned the conviction and ordered him freed. Sam Tasker, his son-in-law, said Fitton landed Friday in Malaysia, where he lives, and was reunited with family members. They're "absolutely over the moon," said Tasker, who credited public support. Fitton's daughter Leila married Tasker in May, while her father was still imprisoned. Our original story from June 6 follows:
A retired British geologist was part of a tour group visiting Iraq in March when he picked up some shards of pottery and stones on the ground at the Sumerian archaeological site of Eridu. The 66-year-old was on Monday sentenced to 15 years behind bars for doing so, the New York Times reports. James Fitton was convicted of stealing artifacts and trying to smuggle them out of Iraq, but he says he had no idea it was illegal to take the rocks and pottery pieces. The BBC earlier reported that there were no signs in the area saying so, or guards preventing him from picking anything up. He made no attempt to hide the pieces, and airport security found them in his luggage as the group prepared to travel home. He was arrested, Reuters reports.
Also detained was another tourist from the group, who said the artifacts found in his luggage had been given to him by Fitton to carry. The court acquitted him. The 85-year-old tour director, Goeff Hann, was also held for questioning; he was in poor health but was not allowed to be medically evacuated from the country even after suffering a stroke. The tour company says he died in a Baghdad hospital in April. The Times says the "harshness" of Fitton's sentence was surprising, but Iraq's culture minister says looting of archaeological sites in the country is a big problem, especially because most of them have not been excavated by archaeologists. Fitton's lawyer, who the AP says was "visibly shocked" at the sentence, says the items had no commercial value, and he will appeal. (Read more Iraq stories.)