Robert Pether jailed in Iraq: Family shares fears for his health

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  • Engineer Robert Pether has been detained in Iraq since April last year, when he arrived to resolve a commercial dispute.
  • Earlier this year, a United Nations report found his detention to be arbitrary and a violation of international law.
  • Her family are concerned about her health after seeing pictures showing significant weight loss and moles.
The wife of an Australian man held in an Iraqi prison has spoken of her fears he may not survive the ordeal.
Robert Pether has been detained in Iraq since April 2021. He has been locked up in a 28-man cell for 19 months.
Pether’s wife Desree told SBS News her husband had lost 42 kilograms during his detention.
“To look at it now, it’s like I’m 40 years old … it’s absolutely heartbreaking,” she said.
“It’s like watching him slowly die and hearing him slowly die and he’s not well, he’s still sick.”

“This is a death sentence – there is no way out.”

In 2006 Mr Pether had stage one melanoma removed from his ear and has a skin condition and many moles all over his body.
Last month, she noticed a new mole where previous cancerous tissue was removed, as well as new moles elsewhere on her body.
“He had a massive explosion of new moles on his back, which his doctor said is an immune response,” Pether said.
“It could be your environment, it could be a lot of stress, or in Roberts’ condition, because he has a history of melanoma, it could mean there’s a melanoma somewhere in his body,” he said.
Iraqi officials agreed to have biopsies done on him, and he was taken to a hospital in Baghdad, Pether said.
She said the doctor removed a large mole from her spine and another from her shoulder, neither of which were the moles she was concerned about, and she later got an infection.

Ms Pether described her husband’s current condition as “rocky”.

Middle-aged man and boy sitting at a table outside

Australian man Robert Pether (right) with his son Oscar several years ago. Robert has been detained in Iraq since April 2021 and his family is losing hope. Source: provided / Desree Pether

“He’s not feeling well, he’s not getting proper nutrition (and) he’s losing weight again, so he’s very close to a dangerous level,” she said.

“And he’s absolutely rock bottom, he sees no way out … these two men have been sitting on the floor in a 14-foot cell for 19 months, trying to figure out how to prove they’re innocent. and it’s just absolutely soul-destroying.
“If he has a melanoma, if the one in his ear is a melanoma, we’re running out of time.”
In a letter sent to SBS and first reported by the Guardian, Pether shared his concerns about his deteriorating health.

“How do you tell a little girl who loves unicorns and cats that her daddy isn’t coming home?” How do you tell your kids that you’re proud of them but won’t share with them the praises (and pitfalls) of their lives?” Mr. Pether wrote.

“And hardest of all, how do you tell your wife, who is your other half, that you won’t keep the promise you made to grow old together?”
“The clock is ticking and I have a narrow window of opportunity, certainly less time than I have to be incarcerated,” he wrote.

“Hope is not abandoned, miracles can (and do) happen. However, the reality right now looks bleak for me and my family.”

What is Robert Pether doing in Iraq and why was he arrested?

Mr Pether, an engineer who has been involved in projects across the Middle East for 10 years, was working on a new headquarters for Iraq’s central bank, with his employer in Dubai overseeing the project.

Work began in 2016 and went smoothly until a dispute arose between the firm and the government.

Man and girl hugging

Robert and his daughter Nala, who was adopted from Ethiopia 10 years ago. Source: provided / Desree Pether

Pether and his Egyptian colleague Khalid Zaghloul were invited to return to Iraq for an urgent meeting with the governor.

On April 7, the two men were arrested and disappeared for several days.
They were then detained for five months before going to trial, where they were sentenced to five years in prison and a joint fine of US$12 million ($18.4 million). The couple was convicted of fraud.
In March of this year, a found that he was arbitrarily detained and that the imprisonment was in violation of human rights and international law.
“Our pro bono human rights lawyers said it’s the most extensive and damning report they’ve seen in years,” Pether said.

“Robert was in a facility for the first 10 days and lost 15 kilograms … he was locked in a closet.

“He was forced to sign an incriminating confession in Arabic without a translator, without his embassy and without a lawyer, and it was used against him.”
On Monday, the two men were issued a new summons and fined an additional US$50 million ($75 million), Pather said.

“It’s not really about getting the money back. It’s about a vendetta. So now it’s 50 million and it’s almost as ridiculous. It’s so ridiculously obvious that it’s a setup that they’re being held hostage.”

“Something has to be done”

Pether said the Egyptian embassy was especially helpful throughout the ordeal.
“I can’t stress enough how amazing the Egyptian embassy has been to us, as well as to Khalid, their own citizen,” he said.

“They were instrumental in getting them to where they are now, and Robert was delirious, passed out, had a kidney and bladder infection and was severely dehydrated.”

Selfie portrait of a woman, a man and a girl.

Desree and Robert’s daughter, Nala, was just eight years old when her father was arrested. Source: provided / Desree Pether

Ms Pether said she had been in contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“I’ve had a lot of communication with DFAT,” he said.
“Definitely, absolutely more could be done, and trying to do that is a daily challenge.”
A spokesperson told SBS News that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is providing extensive consular support to Mr Pether and his family.
“The Australian Government continues to advocate for Mr Pether in the strongest possible terms and at the highest levels,” the spokesman said.

“The Australian Government is concerned about Mr Pether’s health. Australian Embassy officials in Baghdad are providing extensive consular support to Mr Pether, including visiting him in prison and working with the Iraqi authorities to ensure he can access appropriate medical care.”

Grayscale image of a smiling man

Robert Pether has been detained in Iraq for 19 months. Source: Instagram / desreemcc

Due to privacy obligations, the spokesperson said they were unable to provide further comment.

Ms Pether said she is considering all options to try to raise awareness of her husband’s situation and get more help.
“We will do everything we can to get him out … I can see myself parking outside an embassy and going on a hunger strike because something has to be done,” he said.

“Robert can’t do anything, so I have to do something to help him, and nothing I’ve done so far is working.”

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