British tour guide dies in Iraq after officials stopped him leaving

British tour guide dies in Iraq after officials stopped him leaving

May 2, 2022

British tour guide, 85, dies under police guard in Iraq after officials stopped him leaving the country when other members of trip were accused of smuggling bits of ancient pottery

  • A British tour guide has died after his final trip to Iraq ended in disaster
  • Geoff Hann, 85, died in hospital after Iraqi officials stopped him from leaving
  • Members of his tour were detained for allegedly smuggling Iraqi antiques
  • They had visited the ancient Sumerian ruins of Eridu, where Hann fell sick
  • One member of the tour, Jim Fitton, 66, asked to take some of the ruined shards
  • But Iraqi authorities arrested members of the group when they tried to fly home
  • His family appealed for support after the UK Foreign Office allegedly said it couldn’t help for fear of upsetting Iraq. Fitton now faces the death penalty 

A British adventurer who was the first to open up tours in Iraq after the 2003 war has died in a Baghdad hospital as a member of his final excursion faces the death penalty for smuggling.

In what his proved to be his final trip, Geoff Hann, 85, died while under police guard in Iraq after officials stopped him from leaving the country.

Members of his team were accused of trying to take historical artifacts out of the country when visiting the ancient ruins of Eridu in southern Iraq.

Geoff Hann, a British adventurer who was the first to open up tours in Iraq after the 2003 war, has died under police guard in Iraq and officials stopped him from leaving the country

Jim Fitton, 66, a retired geologist and father of two, was detained in connection with the alleged smuggling.

Fitton was one of the members embarking on a tour with Hann throughout Mesopotamia, arriving at the Sumerian city of Eridu as one of the final spots on the list.

After his detention, his daughter Leila Fitton, 31 told The Daily telegraph: ‘There were no guards present, no signage warning against removal of any of the detritus, and indeed neither the Ministry of Tourism representative with them nor the experience tour guide team led by Geoff gave a hint of warning that these items were considered valuable.’

She said her father asked with the representative and the tour guide whether they would be able to take home a few shards from the site to remember the trip by, and were told such mementos would be permitted. 

More than 95,000 people signed a petition asking the Foreign Office to intervene after Fitton’s family pleaded for help.

Jim Fitton, 66, a retired geologist and father of two, is facing the death penalty after being accused of smuggling out antiquities by the Iraqi authorities

Though Hann had initially planned to lead the tour himself, he fell ill during the journey, forcing a trainee guide to take over while the adventurer spent most of the remaining trip recovering on the bus. 

Hann was alert to the sensitivity of the Iraqi authorities over antiques, managing a country which has become exploited by looters and smugglers over the years.

His guidebook, titled Iraq: the ancient sites and Iraqi Kurdistan, warns visitors: ‘The outrage at the looting in Iraq, principally that of the National Museum, has resulted in the tightening and strict implementation of rules regarding the selling, purchasing and possessing of antiquities in Iraq.’

It also warns against buying antiques from bazaars and local street stores, adding ‘under no circumstances should you try to smuggle antiquities out of Iraq.’

But as Hann was unwell, it appears he wasn’t present to warn members of the tour in person. 

Seemingly unbeknownst to the tour’s leader, members of his group had taken some of the shards found at the Sumerian city, without interjection from the trainee tour guide.

Fitton, formerly a geologist for oil and gas companies who now lives in his adopted home of Malaysia with his wife Sarijah, was one of the members who allegedly tried to take the shards home.

Hann was alert to the sensitivity of the Iraqi authorities over antiques, managing a country which has become exploited by looters and smugglers over the years

Hann’s guidebook, Iraq: the ancient sites and Iraqi Kurdistan, says: ‘The outrage at the looting in Iraq, principally that of the National Museum, has resulted in the tightening and strict implementation of rules regarding the selling, purchasing and possessing of antiquities in Iraq’

The trip ended on March 19, with the group sharing a final meal at a Baghdad restaurant. Hann seemed to be doing better.

But the 85-year-old had a stroke the day before he was due to fly home, leaving him partially paralysed and unable to speak.

They group went to the airport together, but Iraqi authorities said Hann was too unwell to board the flight.

Instead, they transferred him to to Baghdad’s al-Yarmouk hospital, where he quickly contracted Covid-19.

The veteran tour guide developed a chest infection and clots in his lungs, with doctors warning his survival was unlikely.

While he was in hospital, it emerged that the rest of his tour was facing their own troubles.

Upon arriving at the Baghdad airport, Fitton was immediately detained along with another German member of the tour.

Authorities spotted 30 suspected stolen artefacts, seizing them and arresting the pair.

Miraculously, Hann was starting to recover from the virus. He was due to be flown out again for further treatment. His close friend organised medical evacuation at the cost of £24,700. 

But the arrest of members of his tour, an Iraqi court forbade Hann from leaving the country before police had the chance to question him, despite the risks to his health.

He later relapsed and died in the Baghdad hospital.

Authorities spotted 30 suspected stolen artefacts when members of the tour tried to fly home, seizing them and arresting the pair

The tour guide’s books warns against buying antiques from bazaars and local street stores, saying ‘under no circumstances should you try to smuggle antiquities out of Iraq.’ But as Hann was unwell, it appears he wasn’t present to warn members of the tour in person

An artistic re-creation of the port at Eridu, where the tour visited, is shown

Fitton’s daughter appealed to the Foreign Office when she heard her father could be facing the death penalty.

The Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) warned the family not to speak publicly about the case, advice which they at first followed.

But after a short wait, they heard there was nothing the Foreign Office could do, for fear of upsetting the Iraqi authorities.

She has since gone public about the incident, saying: ‘It is our view that the entire FCDO political hierarchy had abandoned Jim to his fate, all the way up to the Prime Minister.’ 

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, raised the case with ministers in the House of Commons. 

Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling, in a letter to Ms Hobhouse, said last week: ‘We understand the urgency of the case, and have already raised our concerns with the Iraqi authorities regarding the possible imposition of the death penalty in Mr Fitton’s case and the UK’s opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle.’

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