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British and Germans deny antiquities smuggling in Iraqi court

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BAGHDAD — A Briton and a German tourist, accused of smuggling ancient fragments out of Iraq, appeared in a Baghdad court in yellow inmate uniforms on Sunday, telling judges they had not acted with a criminal intent and that they had no idea that they might have violated local laws.

The trial of 66-year-old Jim Fitton is attracting international attention at a time when Iraq is seeking to open up its nascent tourism sector. The session also revealed the first details about a second defendant, identified as Volker Waldmann from Germany.

The Baghdad Criminal Court’s three-judge panel has scheduled the next hearing for May 22. The court is set to determine whether the defendants sought to profit by taking the 12 items, which were found in their possession as they attempted to leave Baghdad airport on March 20.

Fitton and Waldmann appeared in court in inmate yellow and were asked to explain their actions.

Waldmann said the two items found in her possession were not hers and that Fitton had instead given her to carry. “But did you put them in your bag?” asked Chief Justice Jaber Abdel Jabir. “Didn’t you know these were Iraqi antiquities?”

Waldmann said he did not collect the items from the site, but only agreed to transport them for Fitton.

Fitton said he “suspected” the items he collected were ancient fragments, but that “at the time I did not know Iraqi laws”, or that taking the fragments was not allowed. Fitton said that as a geologist he used to collect such fragments as a hobby and had no intention of selling them.

He said it was not clear to him at the time that picking them up from the site was a criminal offence. “There were fences, no guards or signage,” he told the court at the sites.

“These places, by name and by definition, are ancient sites,” Jabir replied. “It is not necessary to say that it is prohibited.”

When Fitton said some of the shards were “no bigger than my fingernail,” Jabir said that was irrelevant. “Size doesn’t matter,” he told her.

Under the law, both men could face the death penalty, an outcome that legal experts said was unlikely. Officials from the British and German embassies were present in court but did not release detailed public statements on the case so as not to jeopardize the proceedings, they said.

The defense plans to submit more evidence to exonerate the men, Fitton’s defense attorney, Thair Soud, told The Associated Press. This includes testimony from government officials present at the site where the fragments were collected, he said.

“(Their testimony) is pending approval from their official directions,” he said.

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