Case of retired geologist held in Iraq raised repeatedly, minister says
Father-of-two Jim Fitton has been detained in Iraq for more than six weeks after being accused of attempting to smuggle historic artefacts out of the country.
His family said the 66-year-old collected 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.
But they and MPs want ministers to get personally involved to help persuade the Iraqi authorities to accept a proposal to close the case before the trial begins in the coming days.
Foreign Office minister James 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, added in a statement: “They are refusing to take the steps needed that will help to secure Jim’s safety.
“The Government refused to meet with Jim’s family and myself and ignored questions about ministers getting involved.”
Ms Hobhouse secured an urgent question in the Commons on the case and asked ministers to meet with her and the family before the trial starts.
A petition calling for UK ministers to intervene has also collected more than 252,000 signatures.
Mr Cleverly 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.”
Ms Hobhouse said she was “deeply concerned” by the Foreign Office’s engagement with the case of Mr Fitton, who lives in Malaysia, and criticised “slow” ministerial engagement.
She added: “We are told that the Government won’t be making the crucial representations to the Iraqi government. It is my understanding that the German government is making representations on behalf of one of their constituents detained with Jim. Why won’t the Foreign Office do the same?”
Ms Hobhouse went on: “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.”
Mr Cleverly said he “completely rejected” Ms Hobhouse’s criticisms and said consular officials had visited Mr Fitton four times and the ambassador had raised the matter on four occasions with the Iraqi authorities – while the embassy has also sent a note.
For Labour, shadow Foreign Office minister Bambos Charalambous said: “Urgent Government action is needed. And the lack of engagement from ministers is creating frustration from everyone who wishes to see this situation resolved.”
He said: “Does he also share my concern that by dragging his feet on cases such as this, public trust in the Government’s commitment to protecting British citizens wrongly detained abroad is profoundly impacted?”
Mr Cleverly said Mr Charalambous was “frankly talking nonsense when he talks about dragging our feet”.
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”.
Alba Party MP Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) said he was “yet to receive a response” to a letter he wrote to the Foreign Office over the May bank holiday on behalf of Mr Fitton’s sister, who is his constituent.
Mr Hanvey said: “I would gently suggest to the minister his claims of urgency on this matter are certainly not reflected in the response or lack of that I have experienced in raising this case.”