A retired British geologist accused of artefact smuggling suspected the items were ancient but had no idea he was breaking Iraqi laws, a court has heard.
Jim Fitton, 66, and German tourist Volker Waldmann told judges they had not acted with criminal intent as they appeared in a Baghdad court wearing yellow detainees’ uniforms on Sunday.
Father-of-two Fitton collected 12 stones and shards of broken pottery as souvenirs while visiting a site in Eridu, in Iraq’s south east, as part of an organised geology and archaeology tour.
The items were found in the possession of the pair as their group prepared to fly out of Baghdad airport on March 20.
The three-judge panel in Baghdad’s felony court scheduled a second hearing for May 22 and the court must determine whether the defendants had sought to profit by taking the items.
Both men could face the death penalty, according to Iraqi law, but it has been suggested such an outcome is unlikely.
Fitton said he “suspected” the items he collected were ancient fragments.
But he told the court “at the time I didn’t know about Iraqi laws” or that taking the shards was not permitted.
The court heard Fitton was in the habit of collecting such fragments as a hobby and had no intention to sell them given his background as a geologist.
But stressing it was not clear to him that picking them up from the site was a criminal offence, he said of the sites: “There were fences, no guards or signage.”
Head judge Jaber Abdel Jabir responded: “These places, in name and by definition, are ancient sites.
“One doesn’t have to say it is forbidden.”
When Fitton said some of the shards were “no larger than my fingernail”, the head judge said this was not relevant and noted: “Size doesn’t matter.”
Waldmann said the two items found in his possession were not his and instead had been given to him by Fitton to carry.
Fitton lives in Malaysia with his wife Sarijah while his daughter Leila Fitton, 31, and her husband Sam Tasker are based in Bath, Somerset.
Their petition calling for UK ministers to intervene to help free Fitton has collected more than 271,000 signatures.
The case was also raised in the House of Commons during an urgent question session last week.
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said the British ambassador in Iraq has raised the case four times with Iraqi authorities.
The defence plans to submit more evidence to clear the men, Fitton’s defence lawyer Thair Soud told the Associated Press.
He said this includes evidence from government officials present at the site where the fragments were collected
“(Their evidence) is pending approval from their official directorates,” he told the news agency.