LONDON: A British tour guide leading a multinational group in Iraq has died under police observation in hospital amid fears that a fellow Briton in his tour group could be executed for smuggling national treasures.
Geoff Hann, 85, from West Yorkshire in northern England, suffered a stroke and died after Iraqi authorities blocked his exit from the country when members of his tour group were accused of attempting to smuggle precious artifacts from Iraq.
Jim Fitton, 66, a geologist from Bath, Somerset, who was on Hann’s tour is now facing a trial this month for attempting to smuggle pieces of ancient pottery found in luggage at Baghdad airport.
A diplomatic scuffle has erupted over the incident, with Fitton’s family accusing the British government of preferring not to anger the Iraqi judicial authorities. A petition has now been launched urging the Foreign Office to assist the family, and it has so far attracted 95,000 signatures.
The trip had always been set to be Hann’s final tour following a glittering international guiding career, including visits to Baghdad, Mosul, and the ancient cities of Mesopotamia.
Fitton’s 31-year-old daughter Leila Fitton said that the tour group visited a site at Eridu, the ancient Sumerian city south of modern Tall Al-Muqayyar.
Describing the scenario that led to her father’s arrest, she said: “There are no guards present, no signage warning against removal of any of the detritus, and indeed neither the Ministry of Tourism representative with them nor the experienced tour guide team led by Geoff gave even a hint of warning that these items were considered valuable.”
She added: “Jim and others on the tour inquired 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.”
But Hann was not fully guiding throughout the trip. Ahead of his tragic hospital death, he reported feeling unwell during the tour, spending significant portions resting on the bus while a trainee guide led the group. On March 20, he was blocked from boarding a flight home at Baghdad airport and suffered an apparent stroke.
A German on the tour party and Fitton stayed to assist him but were arrested after pottery shards were found in their luggage.
Fitton’s daughter said the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office urged them against speaking publicly about the case for “fear of upsetting the Iraqi authorities.”
She added: “It is our view that the entire FCDO political hierarchy has abandoned Jim to his fate, all the way up to the prime minister.”
Fitton, who used his geological expertise in a global career in the gas and oil industry, now resides in Malaysia.
Laith Hussein, head of antiquities and heritage in Iraq, said: “The British man was detained at the airport after the customs found in his luggage different pieces of antiques from several sites.”
Amanda Milling, the British minister for Asia and the Middle East, said: “We understand the urgency of the case, and have already raised our concerns with the Iraqi authorities regarding the possible imposition of the death penalty in Mr. Fitton’s case and the UK’s opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle.”