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Robert Pether: ‘My Australian husband faces death in an Iraq jail’

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Image source, Desree Pether

When Desree Pether saw a photo of her husband’s face for the first time in 17 months, she ran to the bathroom and threw up.

“He looks like he’s already dead,” she tells the BBC.

“It haunts me every time I shut my eyes.”

Australian man Robert Pether looks nothing like the healthy “gentle giant” he’d been before he was detained in Iraq last year, she says.

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For a start, he’s lost 40kg (88lb) – a third of his body weight. He’s weak and frail: “All his muscles are gone, completely.”

There’s an “explosion” of worrying new moles on his skin, Mrs Pether says – he has previously survived melanoma.

And then there’s his eyes, rimmed by large dark circles – which his wife likens to a swamp.

“It’s like watching him being murdered in slow motion,” she says.

‘Hostages in a contract dispute’

The UN has said Mr Pether is being detained arbitrarily.

A mechanical engineer, he’d worked in the Middle East for almost a decade before taking on a huge rebuild of the Central Bank of Iraq’s Baghdad headquarters in 2015.

Towards the end of the project, a dispute arose between the bank and the company Mr Pether works for – Dubai-based engineering firm CME Consulting.

The company has not spoken publicly about the matter.

But the bank says Mr Pether, who was the project lead, and his Egyptian deputy, Khalid Radwan, plotted with CME to keep money owed to others involved in the project.

However the pair’s advocates say they are “hostages in a contract dispute”.

A view of the Tigris River

Image source, Getty Images

The UN has determined they were “lured” to Iraq under false pretences in April 2021.

It was the start of an ordeal that contravenes international law and could amount to torture, the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention wrote in a March report.

First, Mr Pether and Mr Radwan were forcibly disappeared for several days, it said.

Mr Pether was held in a 2 sq m (21 sq ft) cell with no access to the outside world and little access to water, a source told the UN.

He was there for 12 days. In that time Mr Pether was blindfolded, subjected to “abusive and coercive” interrogations, and shown torture rooms, the report said.

It noted Mr Pether can’t bring himself to talk about what happened in his first two weeks in detention.

In that time he lost 15kg, became so dehydrated he developed severe kidney and bladder infections, and began suffering from delirium and blackouts.

When consular officials were finally able to speak to him – on his 26th day of detention – he was emotional and terrified, according to the report.

The working group has referred the case to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on torture for investigation.

Quick trial

Mr Pether or Mr Radwan were held for more than five months before they were charged with fraudulently receiving funds.

There is no clear information about Iraq’s case against the men.

“We thought as soon as the evidence was presented, they’d say, ‘Oh, I see. There’s been a mistake made… very sorry’,” Mrs Pether says.

But their trial in August last year moved quickly. The judge deliberated for only 15 minutes before convicting them, imposing a joint fine of $12m (A$18.5m, £11m) and a five-year jail sentence each.

Appeals have been unsuccessful, and the men’s lawyers have formally requested a retrial with new evidence.

For weeks, their families have been anxiously awaiting that decision.

But Mrs Pether is growing less and less optimistic her husband will be released, even in 2026 when his sentence expires.

The court recently increased the men’s fine by $20m – a sum they’ll never be able to pay, Mrs Pether says.

Robert Pether pictured with his two sons

Image source, Desree Pether

The UN found Mr Pether and Mr Radwan had been denied proper legal process, evidence used against them was “improperly obtained” and claims of “collusion” between the judge and the bank’s lawyers were credible.

“It’s like a Hollywood movie but if you were watching it, you’d be like, ‘No, they can’t get away with that,” Mrs Pether says.

Australia holds ‘serious concerns’

As the saga drags out, Mr Pether’s health only goes downhill, his family says.

In recent months his doctor wrote to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and embassy staff, pleading for action.

The “massive” increase in moles on his body – some have changed shape dramatically – are an “alarmingly” strong indication his melanoma has returned, he said.

Mr Pether needs urgent hospital care rather than to share a “squalid” cell with 21 inmates while sickly, the doctor said.

“If he is not afforded this basic human right without delay, I fear that Australia will in short time be repatriated with the corpse of Mr Pether.”

But Iraq’s government has denied allegations of ill-treatment, calling them baseless.

“He’s in good condition and receives the adequate medical care that he needs,” Justice Ministry spokesman Ahmed Al Luaibi told Dubai-based outlet The National.

Australian officials have expressed “serious concern” about Mr Pether’s welfare, saying they are working to ensure he has access to appropriate treatment.

“The Australian government continues to advocate for Mr Pether in the strongest possible terms and at the highest levels,” a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman said in a statement.

Australia’s previous government – which lost power in May – had urged Iraq to settle the dispute with Mr Pether’s employer in a local civil court, stressing it could not intervene in legal matters overseas.

In June, Mr Albanese raised Mr Pether’s case with the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

But Mrs Pether says she feels like Australian officials don’t understand the urgency and aren’t doing enough.

“I don’t know what else to do. Do I chain myself to the embassy stairs?”

“All these people need to do the right thing before they’re contacting me and saying, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.'”

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