After Jim Fitton's sentence, his daughter says she can't take it in

How could they jail my father in Iraq for 15 years for taking home THIS?’ Five days after British geologist Jim Fitton’s shattering sentence for leaving with shards of pottery and stones, his daughter tells REBECCA HARDY she still cannot take it in

  • Jim Fitton handed jail term ‘beyond worst case scenario’ for smuggling pottery
  • Pottery shards dating back more than 200 years were found in his possession
  • Fitton’s charge carried maximum death penalty, but only one year was expected 
  • The 66 year-old was instead hit with a brutal 15-year jail term by an Iraqi judge

Leila Fitton is, as she says, ‘living my nightmare’. Today, her kindly, 66-year-old father Jim languishes in goodness knows what sort of hell in an Iraqi prison, where he has been condemned to serve a 15-year sentence for trying to smuggle so-called ancient artefacts — 12 pottery shards and stones — out of the country.

Leila, 31, has not been able to contact him since Thursday.

She is beside herself with worry, particularly because there has been no word from the British ambassador to Iraq nor from Foreign Secretary Liz Truss since Jim was arrested at Baghdad airport on March 20, despite frantic attempts from the family, including her mother Sarijah and 35-year-old brother Joshua, to contact them.

‘They are ignoring us,’ says Leila. ‘I don’t even know which prison he is in. Does he have a bed? Does he even have a mattress or is he on the floor? How crowded is it? Is he the only British man in there? How are the guards? Will he be able to have a few minutes on his phone to message us or will we be dealing with pay phones? Will we be able to talk to him at all? We don’t know.

‘I last spoke to him on Thursday before he was transferred from his holding cell. I’m sure he could hear my voice was wavering so he was being very calm and very strong for me. You can hear in his voice though — you know when someone starts a sentence but just kind of stops — he’s trying to gather himself and not be emotional.’

Retired British geologist James Graham Fitton pictured with his daughter Leila

Leila takes a deep breath to stem the tears that have been falling since her father was found guilty of this crime on Monday.

‘You can’t compute it,’ she says. ‘You think, “There is no way in this world this can be happening.” Right now I’m living my nightmare. When I sleep I’ve been having good dreams of him coming home but then, when I wake up to reality and he’s not here, it breaks me every morning.’

Leila, who works in TV and film production, speaks to me from her parents’ home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where numerous stones and pebbles — souvenirs from their many trips around the world — fill the shelves.

They are much the same as the fragments Jim collected from a site in Eridu, south-east Iraq, with the permission of his tour guide as well as the knowledge of the Ministry of Tourism official and the security guard accompanying his party of six.

His family is now preparing an appeal but don’t have a clue if justice will finally prevail. None of what has happened in the last few months makes sense to Leila. ‘Shell-shocked’ is a word that crops up time and again during our emotional interview.

He has been condemned to serve a 15-year sentence for trying to smuggle so-called ancient artefacts (pictured) — 12 pottery shards and stones — out of the country

Leila and her husband Sam Tasker, 27, who live in Bath, were married in a small civil service in England last July but celebrated with a huge Malaysian ceremony a month ago. The three-day festivities had been planned for more than a year.

Heartbreakingly, instead of greeting the 4,000 guests as tradition decrees, her father Jim was many thousands of miles away incarcerated in an Iraqi holding cell.

Sam rubs his wife’s shoulder. ‘Even on the day that’s supposed to be the best day of your life, you’re still thinking about your dad, aren’t you?,’ he says. ‘You can’t stop those thoughts even for an hour.’ He looks at Leila who can only shake her head.

‘But he was online with you before the ceremony,’ says Sam. ‘I think it was the first time he said, “Love you”. Leila always says, “Love you”,’ Sam explains. ‘But he always goes offline. I think he gets emotional. But this time he said, “Love you”.’

Sam, who works for an outsourcing company, is trying with all his might to support Leila and her family. He is the ‘rock’ without whose support Leila says she would crumble.

Volker Waldmann, right, and Jim Fitton, center, are handcuffed as they walk to a courtroom escorted by police in Baghdad, Iraq

He has enlisted the support of the local Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, who has accused the Government of being ‘asleep at the wheel’, raised a petition that urges the Foreign Office to intervene that now has more than 335,000 signatories and bangs on just about whatever door he can think to raise the profile of this appalling miscarriage of justice.

Indeed, it was the media, not the Foreign Office, who broke the news to Sam about Jim’s brutal 15-year sentence on Monday.

‘A journalist called me an hour after the verdict. That’s how I found out and that was pretty rough,’ he says. ‘Leila was in the bathroom. My heart just dropped as I thought, “I’ve got to tell my wife.”’

Leila takes his hand and squeezes it tightly. ‘He sat me down so I thought, “This is bad news. It’s probably going to be two years,”’ she says. ‘We’d thought he’d either be found innocent or, the lawyer said, at worst, one year suspended which would mean he’d be able to come home.

‘Then Sam said, “Fifteen years”. I think it kind of just blew over me. I didn’t cry — didn’t cry all day. In my mind I was thinking, “How the f*** do I tell my mum. How do I tell my brother?” Leila blushes as she curses. She’s not the sort of woman who swears easily.

‘Mum had just walked into the house. She’d bought some mangoes and was sitting at the table cutting them up. I called my brother because I didn’t know how to tell her.

‘When I said, ‘Fifteen years,’ he said. “Fine.’ Then he said, ‘How many?’ I said again, ‘It’s 15.’ He said, ‘No way.’

Mr Fitton (left) and Mr Waldman (right) are pictured from behind as they entered court

‘I went back into the sitting room and my mum was staring at me. I said, ‘Daddy’s not coming home.’ She was crying but I couldn’t tell her 15 years. I couldn’t. That’s when I tried calling my dad. He didn’t pick up. I think he was preparing himself. I thought, ‘I’ll try again’ so I called and he said . . . he said, “What a shame because . . . ” Leila breaks down.

Sam continues: ‘He said, “What a shame because our lawyer was so good. You must tell him he was so good. He couldn’t have done any better.” ‘That’s what he’s concerned about,’ says Leila between sobs. ‘Always caring for someone else.’

Indeed, it is because of Jim’s compassionate nature that he is in the hellish place he finds himself today. For he had cleared customs on his way home when 85-year-old tour guide Geoff Hann suffered a stroke, so Jim volunteered to wait with his bags while he was taken to hospital.

‘That was when the customs officials started to take an interest in the bags,’ says Sam. ‘Sadly, Geoff passed away in hospital a few days later under arrest for the same crime as Jim. He was comatose in hospital and his family sent a medevac helicopter to bring him back to the UK to be treated for the stroke.

‘They were turned away by guards so he couldn’t be repatriated. It’s tragic. A British national passed away in custody in Iraq. Jim and a German guy who’d offered to help too were arrested and the clock started.’

The lawyer for Mr Fitton (second from right) thought a one-year term was worst-case scenario

Now, Jim is by no means an unseasoned traveller. Since graduating from Cambridge University, he has ventured to the far-flung corners of the globe, including work in Syria, Libya and Yemen as a geologist in the fields of oil and gas.

He is, according to Leila, respectful of the niceties of different cultures and religions. During the Covid lockdown, which was particularly strict in Malaysia, he didn’t so much as set foot outside his home and kept track of the constantly changing rules, updating his children on WhatsApp.

Leila was in Bath, about to travel to Kuala Lumpur to help her family with the wedding preparations, when she first got an inkling something was amiss on March 20.

‘Every day he was sending photos on WhatsApp. I was checking in on him and tracking him to see where he was,’ she says. ‘Usually when he gets to the airport he’ll say, “Boarding now. See you on the other side” to our family group. But I didn’t hear from him. I was beginning to freak out when I didn’t hear from him during his transit in Doha but thought, “Maybe he’s in a rush.”

‘Then, shortly after we’d expected him to arrive at Kuala Lumpur he sent a text saying, “delays at Baghdad airport. The tour leader has been hospitalised I’m fine.’’ Then he went offline. Two days later Leila received a second text: ‘Stuck in Baghdad. Not sure for how long. Will keep you posted.’

Fitton (right) pictured with daughter Leila (left) and wife Sarijah (centre) on holiday in Asia 

‘There was a pattern,’ says Leila. ‘He was online about the same time every day. He told us there was trouble with customs, then, he’d go offline. I thought, maybe he’s bought something that’s too big. Maybe he’s sorting out shipping. After ten days I broke down and said, “Sam. We need to call the Foreign Office and see what’s going on.”’

For three weeks the family, following Foreign Office advice, remained silent until, frustrated by the lack of progress, they launched the petition.

‘We hadn’t told my mum the crime he’d been charged with carried the death penalty,’ says Leila. ‘But when we decided to go public we knew we had to be frank about what was happening.

‘She was in her village in Melaka with my brother. I said, “I think you’re the best person to tell her.” She cried. She was in shock. We all were. We still are. She spends most of her time praying.’

Leila’s conversations with her father were limited to brief WhatsApp messages until he was found guilty on Monday. It was, to say the least, a huge shock. During the first day of the court proceedings in May, the judge himself acknowledged there was no criminal intent. ‘He pointed out there were no guards or signage or warnings of any kind at the site — or at the airport or on foreign websites,’ says Sam. ‘There is no way you could have known.

Fitton is pictured sitting in the backseat alongside family members in this undated photo

‘We were cautiously optimistic. The lawyer said even if there was a guilty verdict, at worse he’d receive a year’s suspended sentence, get on the plane and never go back to Iraq.’

A second court session, during which the Ministry of Tourism official and security guard were set to give evidence in support of Jim, was postponed until June 6 — the day after Leila’s parents’ 39th wedding anniversary. As it was, the court deemed there was no need for their testimony and returned the guilty verdict within an hour and a half.

‘That evening Jim’s concern was that he might not be out for 15 years so needed to practically make sure Leila’s mum was looked after,’ says Sam. ‘We’re in the process of doing the paperwork to make sure all the bank accounts are in both their names, that she knows all the passwords and all that online stuff. We’re also preparing the appeal.’

Jim has been receiving once-a-fortnight visits from a ‘deputy ambassador type’ who has taken him books to read and initially provided a list of lawyers and translators, but the family has received shockingly little help from UK government officials.

On Wednesday they received the second of only two phone calls from the Foreign Office since Jim’s arrest, during which they were assured he would remain in the holding cell at the airport for ten days. He messaged them that afternoon to say he was being moved.

Fitton is pictured with Waldman and a court clerk outside the Baghdad courthouse last month

Yesterday they learned he was transferred on Thursday morning but that his reading glasses, phone and books remain at the airport. They still do not know where he is.

Once the appeal is lodged next week, it will take 30 days before they know whether the case will be returned to court for a retrial or if the verdict will be upheld or, they pray, quashed.

Mr Fitton is pictured in a holiday selfie

‘Nothing’s clear,’ Sam acknowledges. ‘Not even where he is other than somewhere in central Baghdad.’

Leila looks shattered. ‘When I heard he was being moved to prison I messaged him and said, “Can I come next week?” He said, “Absolutely not.” Then I said, “Can my brother go?” He said, “No,” He doesn’t want us to go. He wants to protect us.

‘He even told me not to tell my mum he’d been sentenced to 15 years. I had to because I knew she was probably going to see it on the news. When I messaged him, “She knows” he said, “How is Mummy? How are her knees?” He worries about her 100 per cent of the time. He worries about all of us.

‘I’ve assured him we’re ok — just worried about him. I said, “We’re with you every step of the way.” He ended the conversation saying, “You’re both doing so well . . .”

‘He’s so strong but what he’s going through, wherever he is, is playing on my mind all the time. We still don’t know where he is.’

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