Jim Fitton: Family feel ‘completely abandoned’ by Foreign Office as Briton faces death penalty in Iraq

Son-in-law says 66-year-old is ‘certainly putting on a brave face and stiff upper lip for us’

Zoe Tidman
Monday 02 May 2022 11:16
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<p>Retired British geologist Jim Fitton and his wife Sarijah Fitton (Family handout/PA)</p>

Retired British geologist Jim Fitton and his wife Sarijah Fitton (Family handout/PA)

The family of British man facing the death penalty in Iraq have said they feel “completely abandoned” by the Foreign Office as sentencing approaches.

Jim Fitton’s son-in-law told The Independent it was a “cautionary tale” for British citizens abroad to not expect the department “to save you if you get into trouble outside of your control”.

The retired geologist is due to stand trial in Iraq next week, according to his family. The 66-year-old is accused of attempting to smuggle historical artifacts out of the country, which they say carries a statutory punishment of execution.

Mr Fitton was arrested at the airport after picking up unguarded shards of broken pottery and stones at a historical site after being assured they had no value, according to a petition calling for the Foreign Office to fight for his release.

Sam Tasker, his son-in-law, said embassy workers on the ground had been “as helpful as they can be” but the “political establishment within the Foreign Office have been completely absent”.

He said there had been no contact with ministers or anyone with any “decision-making capacity” in the department, even as their petition attracted more than 100,000 signatures in several days.

Mr Tasker told The Independent the family felt “completely abandoned” by the Foreign Office over Mr Fitton’s situation in Iraq.

Retired British geologist Jim Fitton with his wife Sarijah Fitton and his daughter Leila Fitton (Family handout/PA)

“It’s a cautionary tale to others as much as anything else. Firstly, be very careful if you’re thinking about travelling to Iraq for historical tourism because Jim is a hugely experienced traveler, travelling with a very experienced and well-respected travel group, an organised tour that does this for a living. And we still find ourselves in this situation,” he said.

“Secondly, as 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. At least it seems to us at the moment.”

Leila Fitton, his daughter, said officials on the trip - including a Ministry of Tourism representative or tour guides - did not give “even a hint of warning” the items her father picked up during a site visit to Eridu were valuable.

Jim Fitton with his family

“Indeed, Jim and others on the tour enquired whether they would be OK to take home a few shards from the site to remember the trip by and were told that this would be perfectly fine, as the debris had no economic or historical value,” she claimed.

She said her father would bring home souvenirs - such as stones - from his travels, which are on display at his home in Malaysia.

Ms Fitton described her father as a geologist who has worked in a host of countries, such as Yemen, Syria, Vietnam and Indonesia throughout his life.

“A real nerd when it comes to geology”, she told The Independent. “He’s a very quiet person, very reserved, he loves his books. And he’s one of my best friends. I’m very close to him and I haven’t seen him for two years because of Covid.

“We had a Covid wedding in Bath, which my whole family couldn’t attend. So we’re back in Malaysia for our Malaysian wedding, and it is happening this coming week. And it’s very sad that he can’t be there with us.”

Mr Fitton was arrested in late March while waiting to fly back home to Malaysia. He has since been in a holding cell at the airport, his family say.

His son-in-law told The Independent they hear from the 66-year-old on Whatsapp for about five to 10 minutes every day, when they believe he is given his phone back for a short time.

Mr Tasker said his father-in-law is “certainly putting on a brave face and stiff upper lip for us”.

Jim Fitton with his family

He said the family initially kept quiet after being advised to do so by their caseworker. “We sat on our hands for three weeks really waiting for somebody to help us.”

His local MP for Bath, Wera Hobhouse, raised the issue in parliament last week. After this, Mr Tasker said they heard from the Foreign Office that they “didn’t want to be seen to be intervening in the Iraqi judicial system”.

The department says it opposes the death penalty but cannot interfere in the legal systems of other countries.

But Mr Tasker said he feels it wasted valuable time “deliberating quietly to turn around and tell us they’re not going to help”.

“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”, he said.

Mr Fitton’s family are calling for the Foreign Office to help fast-track a meeting between their lawyer and Iraq’s director of public prosecutions in the hope of closing the case before it goes to trial, which they expect next week.

He said they hope to push this through by “leaning on Jim’s age, the fact there’s obviously no criminal intent and the fact that he was not properly supported by Iraqi officials or guides, or anyone else who was there who should have known better.”

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We are providing consular support to a British national in Iraq and are in contact with the local authorities.

“The British government’s policy on the death penalty is clear: we oppose it in all circumstances, as a matter of principle.”

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