Robert Pether shouldn't have been tried by Iraq court, says Australian government

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says jailed engineer was held liable for what should have been a civil case

An Australian engineer who was sentenced to five years in an Iraqi jail should not have been tried in a criminal court, the Australian government has said.

Robert Pether, who lived in Dubai, and Egyptian colleague Khalid Zaghlol were jailed in August and hit with a fine of $12 million.

The sentence followed a contractual dispute between Mr Pether’s employer, CME Consulting, and the Central Bank of Iraq.

In a statement to The National, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the case should have not been dealt with in a criminal court.

Quote
The Australian government is concerned by the criminal conviction of Mr Pether and an Egyptian colleague on fraud charges, their five-year prison sentence and the joint fine of USD$12 million. This should be treated as a civil law case, not a criminal law case
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

“The Australian government is concerned by the criminal conviction of Mr Pether and an Egyptian colleague on fraud charges, their five-year prison sentence and the joint fine of USD$12 million,” a spokesman said.

“While the Australian government has shown respect towards Iraq’s judicial system, we have always expressed the view that commercial disputes should be conducted between corporate entities rather than individuals, and that this should be treated as a civil law case, not a criminal law case.

“The [Australian] government has consistently advocated for Mr Pether’s interests and is providing consular assistance to Mr Pether and his family.”

Australian citizens are advised not to travel to Iraq over concerns for their safety due to the the volatile security situation, and very high risk of violence, armed conflict, kidnapping and terrorist attacks.

Mr Pether, who lived in Dubai for the past decade, had travelled widely to work on construction projects across the region.

Appeal dismissed after 'closed court session'

Desree Pether, his wife, said the family was in turmoil after the latest setback.

Last week, they were that their appeal against the sentencing had been dismissed in a closed-door court hearing.

"We were fully expecting to have our appeal held in court this week but we found out it had taken place without Robert or his lawyers present, on October 14, and the conviction was upheld by the judge," said Mrs Pether.

Zaha Hadid’s Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) design will be A Landmark Tower & Financial Monument on the shores of the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq. courtesy: Zaha Hadid Architects

"It just seems to be getting worse and you would maybe think we are used to it by now, but the truth is we are feeling rundown and beaten.

"We are all suffering from PTSD and our daughter did not want to celebrate her ninth birthday last week because her daddy was not there and she has withdrawn into herself over all of this. It is taking a massive toll on all of us."

Dubai-based CME Consulting, who provided Mr Pether with a lawyer, has not responded to requests for comment.

The National was told the dispute surrounds a $33 million contract awarded to CME Consulting in 2015, for the Zaha Hadid-designed Central Bank headquarters on the banks of the Tigris River.

A lack of funding, due to falling oil prices and Iraq’s war with extremist groups, was said to be behind the project’s suspension in 2016.

Work resumed in 2018, with CME Consulting completing 39 of the 48 months stipulated in their contract before payments were withheld.

The Central Bank also asked CME to extend the contract by three months to make up for work suspended during the Covid-19 restrictions last year.

CME was told by the banking regulator that it would not pay for the extension, which led to the company objecting on the grounds the suspension was not its decision.

Mr Pether was invited in April to attend what he thought was a routine meeting at the Baghdad bank to discuss the project.

Instead he was arrested, along with Mr Zaghlol, and was held in custody before receiving the same prison sentence in August.

The bank also called for CME to return $12 million, the same amount Mr Pether and his colleague were fined, on the grounds the sum was for “extra payments”.

Updated: October 26th 2021, 5:25 AM
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