Son of Australian engineer held for 60 days in Baghdad makes emotional plea for his release

Oscar Pether appealed to Iraqi authorities to release his father, Robert

The family of an engineer who has been detained without explanation in Iraq has made an emotional plea for his release.

Robert Pether, 46, has been held in custody for 60 days.

The Australian was arrested during what he thought was a routine business meeting with his employer's client, the Central Bank of Iraq.

His wife and son urged authorities in Baghdad to release Mr Pether after he was denied bail three times despite not being charged with any offence.

I have gone countless nights sitting in my room feeling empty, wondering if I’ll ever see him again

Oscar Pether

Mr Pether and an Egyptian colleague, Khalid Zaghlol, were both arrested without explanation upon arrival at the meeting on April 7, following a contractual dispute with Iraq's Central Bank.

Their employer, Dubai-based company CME Consulting, was awarded a deal in 2015 by the bank to offer engineering consulting services for building a new headquarters in Baghdad.

The trauma of Mr Pether’s detention has led to his son, 15, releasing a video on social media pleading for help.

“I have gone countless nights sitting in my room feeling empty, wondering if I’ll ever see him again,” Oscar Pether said in the video.

“The situation has made my depression worse to the point I was forced into therapy.

“I’m begging for his immediate unconditional release. Please bring my father home to us.”

Oscar, 15, said his father’s arrest was a breach of his human rights.

Mr Pether’s wife Desree said there had been no update from authorities in Iraq as to when her husband would finally be released.

“His bail has been denied three times at this stage without any reason being given as to why,” said Ms Pether.

She was only able to speak to her husband over the phone once, since his arrest.

“It was a short five-minute conversation and there has been nothing else since,” she said.

Ms Pether has been kept aware of her husband’s status through communications with the Egyptian and Australian embassies.

She said CME Consulting has provided him with a lawyer but there was still no indication he would be released anytime soon.

“We are just literally clutching at straws at this stage,” she said.

Australian Robert Pether pictured with his three children. Courtesy: Desree Pether
Australian Robert Pether pictured with his three children. Courtesy: Desree Pether

Ms Pether added her husband is currently being kept in a room with other prisoners, which has led to concerns about her husband’s health.

“He’s in a room with 22 others but there are only 22 beds,” she said.

“Someone has to sleep on the floor. There is simply no justification for him to be treated like this.”

Ms Pether said she was also seeking help from the Irish government as she is an Irish citizen, and is currently residing there with her children.

The National contacted the Australian and Irish governments for comment, as well as Mr Pether’s lawyer in Iraq.

Contractual dispute

The Central Bank of Iraq building on the shores of the Tigris River in Baghdad was one of the projects Robert Pether was working on in Iraq. Zaha Hadid Architects
The Central Bank of Iraq building on the shores of the Tigris River in Baghdad was one of the projects Robert Pether was working on in Iraq. Zaha Hadid Architects

The dispute involves a $33 million contract awarded to CME Consulting in 2015.

The company teamed up with another for the project, as requested by the central bank.

Work was suspended a year later owing to a lack of funds caused by plummeting oil prices in the international market and Iraq’s war with ISIS.

Iraq resumed work on the project in 2018, by which stage the partner withdrew from the contract but CME Consulting continued the work without notifying the central bank.

The company worked for 39 of the 48 months stipulated in its contract. It was paid for 32 months, before payment was withheld in September.

The dispute started this year when the bank asked CME to extend the contract for three months to make up for work suspended during the coronavirus lockdown last year.

The bank said it would not pay for the extension. CME refused, saying the suspension was not its decision and that its employees were in Baghdad.

The bank is now accusing CME of a scam for not informing it of the withdrawal of the partner, something that is not required by the contract or mentioned as a contractual breach.

It is also asking for $12 million, described as “extra payments” to be returned.

Updated: June 7, 2021 07:43 PM

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