Wife and children of Irish resident held in Iraq without charge call for his release

Robert Pether is a consultant mechanical engineer for a Baghdad company

Desree Pether  with her sons, Flynn  and Oscar, and daughter Nala. Her husband and their father, Robert Pether, is detained in Iraq without explanation from the authorities there. Photograph: Peter Murtagh

Desree Pether with her sons, Flynn and Oscar, and daughter Nala. Her husband and their father, Robert Pether, is detained in Iraq without explanation from the authorities there. Photograph: Peter Murtagh

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Most evenings when he is away from his home in Elphin, Co Roscommon, engineer Robert Pether telephones home and spends time reading a bedtime story to his eight-year-old daughter, Nala.

But that has not happened since April 7th when he was arrested in Baghdad in a row over a contract’s dispute, ending up in al-Muthanna, a detention centre which has been criticised by Amnesty International.

Sitting in the family’s home in Elphin, a former convent, Pether’s wife, Desree Pether, cannot help but worry: “It’s horrendous,” she says, “I’ve aged 30 years in the past 85 days.”

Pether’s 51-year-old wife, whose father was a Dubliner, has joint Irish and Australian citizenship, as do her two sons, Flynn (18) and Oscar (16). Her husband plans to apply for citizenship in time.

The Pethers bought the rambling and run-down former convent about 18 months ago, which the couple hope to turn into an herbal therapy centre, not just a home.

The Pethers like doing up old properties: “We decided to move over here from Dubai so I could have some consistency because, before then, life was quite choppy and changey,” says Flynn.

That hoped-for calm has not happened, with the couple’s eldest son interrupting his Leaving Cert studies to write letters to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, begging him to intervene.

Mechanical engineer

Though Taoiseach Micheál Martin has told the Dáil that the State “will do everything we possibly can”, it has had minimal, if any, involvement, believing that the Australians must lead on the case.

Pether, a consultant mechanical engineer with the Abu Dhabi-based CME Consulting, has spent the last four years working with a Baku-based firm, Daax, on building a new HQ for the Iraqi central bank.

Daax is gushing in its description of the 35-storey, single-tower Zaha Hadid-designed building, describing it as “an architectural monument successor to the tower of Babylon”.

Relations, however, deteriorated from last September’s appointment of Mustafa Ghaleb as the bank’s new governor, when it stopped paying money into an escrow account used to settle bills.

Faced with invoices not being met, Daax told CME that they could not keep building and so Pether, on behalf of CME, opened talks with the bank to resolve matters.

During time in Abu Dhabi in March, he was called by Ghaleb who said, according to his wife, that he had “been unaware things had got so bad” and urged him to come back to Baghdad.

Her husband rang the Australian embassy in Baghdad to check if it was safe to do so, and was told that there had been no cases where an employee had been arrested in contract disputes.

However, Pether and his Egyptian colleague, Khalid Radwan, were arrested when they came back. Quickly, Iraqi security “took every piece of paper out of Robert’s bedroom and out of his office, took every file, every hard drive, his laptop and his phone”.

A request to be allowed to speak with the Australian embassy was refused. Soon they were taken to a detention centre called D6, where both were held in solitary for the first 12 days.

On April 12th, Pether was charged with “impersonating a company”, though this allegation was “quickly and easily disproved” and the charges were dropped, says the petition.

Soon after, Pether was transferred to the al-Muthanna, a military detention centre, but neither he nor Radwan have been charged with any offence.

The petition prepared for the UN Commissioner on Human Rights records Ms Pether’s view that her husband is “mentally broken” and frightened. “He is scared,” she says.

He is visited weekly by Australian diplomats during which time he can call his wife and family and can speak relatively freely. Communications at other times are more difficult.

Today, he is held in a 14sq ft cell with 22 other prisoners. With kidney and bladder infections, he has lost considerable weight, has blackouts, is delirious and has “started to forget some facts”, says the petition.

Pether remains uncharged and has not been told why he was arrested, but despite this he has been brought to court where lawyers for the bank are alleged to work closely with the judge.

For now, he and his family must wait and hope, says his wife: “I live on rescue remedy drops, camomile tea and valerian tea. It’s really hard; we’re so isolated,” she says.

This article was edited on July 7th, 2021.