The ruling on Monday shook Fitton’s family, and his lawyer told reporters he would appeal.
“We could not be more heartbroken and shellshocked,” his daughter, Leila, wrote in an online petition for his release, describing the sentence as a “horrific injustice.” “We are suspending our emotional reactions in favor of positive action to get Jim home,” the statement from his family added.
Along with a tour group visiting Iraq earlier this year, Fitton went to the archaeological site of Eridu, part of the remains of Sumerian cities in ancient Mesopotamia.
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His family has urged the British government to intervene and endorse the appeal.
The British Foreign Office said Tuesday in an email that it was “in contact with the local authorities” but did not respond to questions about the verdict or about whether Fitton could serve the sentence in his home country instead of Iraq. “We are providing consular assistance to a British national in Iraq, and continue to support his family,” it said.
Under a 2002 heritage law in Iraq, looting artifacts can lead to a prison sentence of seven to 15 years, while stealing antiquities by force with weapons or in a group is punishable by the death penalty.
The country, home to the proverbial cradle of civilization, has seen a push to recover thousands of ancient artifacts that were plundered in the two decades since the U.S. invasion — many of which ended up in museums and personal collections in the United States and around the world.
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The neglect of archaeological sites, lack of funds and corruption later enabled further looting, while Islamic State militants notoriously destroyed and smuggled antiquities when they held territory in Iraq.
Last year, the United States handed back more than 17,000 smuggled artifacts, as the Iraqi culture minister praised international efforts to stop smugglers and return looted possessions.
There was no immediate comment from the Iraqi government on Fitton’s prison sentence on Monday, which appeared to shock his lawyer. “I thought the worst case scenario would be one year, with suspension,” the lawyer told the Associated Press.
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. “The first thing we mention is not to pick up objects, & talk about the importance of heritage protection in Iraq,” Ali Al Makhzomy tweeted.