A retired British geologist at risk of execution over artefact smuggling allegations is expected to stand trial in Iraq on May 15, MPs have heard.
UK ministers on Wednesday faced fresh pleas to personally raise the case of Jim Fitton with their Iraqi counterparts and help end the 66-year-old’s “nightmare”.
Father-of-two Mr Fitton collected 12 stones and shards of broken pottery as souvenirs while visiting a site in Eridu, in the country’s south east, as part of an organised geology and archaeology tour, his family said.
Mr Fitton and a German man on the trip were arrested after the group’s baggage was checked at the airport.
The British national, who lives in Malaysia, has been detained for more than six weeks, and an urgent session in the House of Commons to discuss his case heard the trial date has been set for May 15.
Mr Fitton’s lawyer, Thair Soud, also said his client will stand trial before Iraq’s felony court from Sunday, according to the Associated Press.
It reported his lawyer will have to prove to a panel of judges that Mr Fitton did not harbour any criminal intent when he picked up shards of pottery found in the desert landscape during the visit.
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said the British ambassador in Iraq has raised the case four times with Iraqi authorities.
But MPs joined Mr Fitton’s family in pressing for ministers to go further in a bid to persuade Iraqi authorities to accept a proposal to close the case before the trial begins.
Mr Cleverly defended the UK’s response to the case but failed to commit to meeting the family and was accused by Labour of “dragging his feet” in making the ministerial-level intervention required to help protect Mr Fitton.
Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, who represents Mr Fitton’s family based in Bath, Somerset, told the Commons: “Jim Fitton is potentially facing the death penalty. I urge the minister to do everything they can do to stop this nightmare before it turns into a tragedy.”
A petition calling for UK ministers to intervene has collected more than 252,000 signatures.
Mr Cleverly earlier said a meeting between officials and the family took place on Wednesday, adding: “We cannot interfere or seek to interfere with the judicial process of another country, just as we would not expect interference in our own judicial process.
“That said, the British ambassador in Baghdad has raised and will continue to raise Mr Fitton’s case with the Iraqi government and this includes raising with the authorities the UK’s very strong opposition to the death penalty, both in terms of its potential application to Mr Fitton and also our in principle opposition to the death penalty in all instances.”
Conservative former Foreign Office minister Andrew Murrison said Germany, at ministerial level, appears to be “far more involved”.
SNP MP Chris Law (Dundee West) asked if it was true that ministers have “yet to lobby their Iraqi counterparts against issuing a death sentence”.
Mr Cleverly reiterated the “intensive level of engagement that we have had at the most senior levels within the British embassy in Iraq, directly with the Iraqi government”.
In the House of Lords, Conservative whip Lord Sharpe of Epsom agreed to a request to meet Lib Dem peer Lord Purvis of Tweed and Ms Hobhouse to discuss the case.