Robert Pether: Australian jailed in Iraq reaches 1,000-day milestone

Robert Pether and his son

By Hannah Ritchie

BBC News, Sydney

An Australian man whose family argue he is being “held hostage” in Iraq has now spent 1,000 days in prison.

Robert Pether was jailed in 2021 on fraud charges, but the UN has described it as an arbitrary detention.

After three Christmases behind bars, his family says Mr Pether has hit “rock bottom” and that his health is rapidly deteriorating.

His lawyer is calling on the Australian government to urgently secure the father of three’s release.

Desree Pether worries that her husband – who has lost a third of his body weight since being arrested – may die in prison and never see his children Flynn 20, Oscar 18, and Nala 11, again.

“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel and so many moments have been stolen from us,” she told the BBC.

“Nala wrote to Santa this year asking if he could stop by Iraq and pick up her dad up on the way through – I said that Santa can’t get involved in political matters.”

A mechanical engineer, Mr Pether had gone to Iraq to rebuild its Central Bank headquarters in Baghdad.

But a contract dispute between the bank and his employer – CME Consulting – landed Mr Pether and his Egyptian colleague Khalid Radwan in prison, after the bank accused the men of stealing money from the project.

After being held without charge for almost six months, and then subjected to a speedy trial, the two were each given a five-year jail sentence and slapped with a joint fine of $12m (A$17.5m, £9.4m).

However, a 2022 report from the UN determined that the case contravened international law and that Mr Pether and Mr Khalid had been subjected to “abusive and coercive” interrogations.

Iraq’s government has previously denied allegations of ill treatment, but the matter is now under investigation by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on torture.

And earlier this year, the International Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC) Court of Arbitration ruled that Iraq’s central bank was at fault in the dispute with CME and ordered it to pay $13m to the company.

UK human rights lawyer Peter Griffin, who is representing Mr Pether, says the ICC finding “completely undercuts Iraq’s argument that Robert’s imprisonment is justified” by the “supposed wrongdoings” of the company he worked for.

“That is now totally disproven and cannot provide the basis for his incarceration,” he told the BBC.

Mr Griffin believes that Iraq is holding Mr Pether “in the hope that it can parlay his release into some sort of financial gain” and says that the Australian government needs to “up its game”.

“We have all seen the great lengths that some countries will go to secure the release of their nationals in similar situations… if Robert was from the US or UK, he would have been home long ago.”

A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says officials have “consistently advocated for Mr Pether’s rights and welfare at all levels”, but that the government cannot “intervene in another country’s legal processes”.

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