Family of geologist freed from Iraq thank ‘kindness of strangers’ for his return

·4-min read
Jim Fitton with his family, after being released from Iraqi prison (Family handout/PA)
Jim Fitton with his family, after being released from Iraqi prison (Family handout/PA)

The family of a retired British geologist who was detained in Iraq have thanked “the kindness of strangers” for supporting their campaign as he returned home.

Jim Fitton, 66, was arrested on March 20 and jailed for 15 years for collecting stones and shards of pottery as souvenirs while visiting a site in Eridu, in Iraq’s south east, as part of an organised geology and archaeology tour.

Iraqi officials claimed the items could be considered archaeological pieces as they date back more than 200 years.

Mr Fitton’s conviction was quashed by Iraqi courts after a campaign by the family’s local MP, Wera Hobhouse, along with thousands of people in the UK who wrote to their own MPs, signed a petition and sent messages of support.

Father-of-two Mr Fitton lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with his wife Sarijah, and he returned on Friday afternoon.

Speaking from his home during a virtual press conference two days later, his daughter Leila and her husband Sam Tasker said Mr Fitton had lost a lot of weight but was “staying positive”.

Asked by the PA news agency what the last four months had been like for the family, Leila Fitton said: “It was a nightmare – worse than a nightmare.

“I’m very close to my dad and of course, he missed our wedding, he missed a lot.

“I really missed him because I hadn’t seen him for two years, so it impacted me a lot.

“I was stressed every day, I couldn’t sleep and I feel like I’ve not slept for months.

“I can’t imagine what he went through, the amount of anxiety.”

Mr Tasker added: “I’m not 100% sure that he really believed that he was home until he woke up in his own bed.

“It was 160-odd days of constant adrenaline and fear, proper fear.”

You are evidence that the actions of the many can move the needle in situations like this, you spurred us on when we were struggling to find hop.

Sam Tasker

The couple thanked all those who signed a petition to help bring Mr Fitton home, saying they would “never again doubt the kindness of strangers”.

They also thanked Richard Ratcliffe, who gave them advice and support based on his experience with his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, being freed from an Iranian prison earlier this year.

Mr Tasker said: “We personally have a great many people to thank for their support during this horrific and trying time for our family, not least the 357,000 people who signed a petition on, who kept us going with kind comments and words of support, the hundreds of supporters who wrote letters to their MPs asking for engagement.

“You are evidence that the actions of the many can move the needle in situations like this, you spurred us on when we were struggling to find hope.

“We as a family will never again doubt the kindness of strangers.”

He stressed there are still “a number of families with UK national relatives arbitrarily detained abroad” and Mr Fitton’s release “does not mean in any way that the job is anywhere near done”.

Ms Hobhouse, a Liberal Democrat MP, thanked the Foreign Office, but said officials’ initial response was “not good enough”.

She said ministers only responded to her request for help after 10 days, and only after she raised it in Parliament.

Wera Hobhouse MP (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)
Wera Hobhouse MP (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)

Ms Hobhouse said: “Jim’s case really resonated with people and there was a unanimous outpouring of sympathy and support.

“In the end the Foreign Office did step up and I want to say thank you for what they did in the background – although it wasn’t always quite clear what that was.”

Mr Fitton was arrested at Baghdad Airport alongside German tourist Volker Waldmann after security staff discovered the items in their luggage.

The pair told judges they had not acted with criminal intent, with Mr Fitton explaining he collected such fragments as a hobby.

Iraqi law said the death penalty was a possible punishment but Mr Fitton was sentenced to 15 years in jail while Mr Waldmann was cleared.

Mr Fitton was initially held in an airport detention centre after his arrest and had been in an Iraqi prison since the second week of June.

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