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Iraq trial of Briton and German for antiquity theft adjourned

AFP logo AFP 22/05/2022 AFP
James Fitton, 66, a retired British geologist (L), and Volker Waldmann, 60, a Berlin psychologist, in the yellow uniform of detainees, arrive at a courthouse in the Iraqi capital Baghdad © Sabah ARAR James Fitton, 66, a retired British geologist (L), and Volker Waldmann, 60, a Berlin psychologist, in the yellow uniform of detainees, arrive at a courthouse in the Iraqi capital Baghdad

An Iraqi court on Sunday adjourned for two weeks the trial of a Briton and a German man accused of trying to smuggle antiquities after a defence lawyer called for more investigations.

James Fitton, 66, a retired British geologist, and Volker Waldmann, 60, a Berlin psychologist, have been in custody since they were arrested on March 20 at Baghdad airport as they wound up their holiday.

According to statements from customs officers and witnesses, Fitton's baggage contained 10 stone fragments, pieces of pottery or ceramics. Waldmann allegedly had two pieces, but denied they were his.

The two men did not know each other before they travelled to Iraq on an organised tour, and both say they had no intention of breaking the law.

The trial was adjourned until June 6 to allow time for further investigations, at the request of Waldmann's defence lawyer, Furat Kuba.

During initial investigations, "certain important aspects were not examined", Kuba said, citing the report of an expert committee that said the fragments found with the men were antiquities.

"We don't have any more details: what site do these pieces come from? What era, what civilisation do they date back to?" Kuba asked, adding there were also outstanding questions relating to the site where the fragments were collected.

"Is it fenced and protected?" Kuba asked. "Are there signs indicating that these are ancient pieces that it is forbidden to collect?"

Kuba said he wanted the tour guide or an Iraqi official who had been present at the site to give evidence in court as to whether the tourists had received instructions prohibiting them from picking up fragments.

Their trial comes with the war-ravaged country, whose tourism infrastructure is almost non-existent, timidly opening to visitors. 

Iraq has also been trying to recover antiquities that were looted over a period of decades from the country whose civilisation dates back thousands of years.

The judge told the accused they were charged under a 2002 law which provides for sentences up to the death penalty for those guilty of "intentionally taking or trying to take out of Iraq an antiquity".

Fitton, at the start of the trial, when asked why he tried to take the artefacts out of Iraq, cited his "hobby", saying he was interested in "geology and ancient history and archeology," and was not aware that taking the fragments was illegal.

Waldmann has denied the pieces allegedly found in his luggage were his, but they belonged to Fitton.

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