Robert has been jailed in Iraq for over a year. His wife fears she’s watching him ‘die slowly’

  • Engineer Robert Pether has been detained in Iraq since April last year, when he arrived to solve a business dispute.
  • Earlier this year a United Nations report found his detention to be arbitrary and a breach of international law.
  • His family is concerned for his health after seeing pictures showing significant weight loss and concerning moles.
The wife of an Australian man being held in an Iraqi jail has spoken of her fears he won’t survive the ordeal.
Robert Pether has been detained in Iraq since April 2021. He has been locked in a 28-man cell for 19 months.
Mr Pether’s wife Desree told SBS News her husband had lost 42 kilograms during his detention.
“To look at him now, it’s like he’s aged 40 years … it’s just absolutely heartbreaking,” she said.
“It’s like watching him die slowly and listening to him die slowly and he’s not well, he keeps getting 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, he noticed a new mole on the site where he had previous cancerous tissue removed, in addition to new moles in other parts of his body.
“He’s had a massive explosion of new moles on his back, which his doctor said is an immune response,” Ms Pether said.
“It can be your environment, it can be a lot of stress, or in Roberts’s condition, because he has a history of melanoma, it can mean that there is a melanoma somewhere on his body,” she said.
Iraqi officials agreed for him to have biopsies and he was taken to a hospital in Baghdad, Ms Pether said.
She said the doctor removed a large mole from his spine and another from his shoulder, neither of which were the moles he had been concerned about, and he later got an infection.

Ms Pether described her husband’s current state as “rock bottom”.

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

“He doesn’t feel well, he’s not getting appropriate nutrition (and) he’s losing weight again, so he’s getting very close to a dangerous level,” he said.

“And he’s absolutely rock bottom, he doesn’t see a way out … these two men have sat there on the floor in a 14-foot cell for 19 months, trying to work out how to prove that they’re innocent, and it’s just absolutely soul destroying.
“If he does have a melanoma, if that one on his ear is a melanoma, we’re running out of time.”
In a letter provided to SBS and first reported on by the Guardian, Mr Pether shared his concerns over his deteriorating health.

“How do you tell a little girl who loves unicorns and cats that her daddy will not be coming home? How do you tell your children that you are proud of them but will not be sharing the accolades (and pitfalls) of their lives with them?” Mr Pether wrote.

“And toughest of all, how do you tell your wife, who is very much the other half of you, that you will not be keeping 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 am due to be imprisoned for,” he wrote.

“Hope is not forsaken, miracles can (and do) occur. However, the reality at the moment is looking bleak for myself and my family.”

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

Mr Pether, an engineer who had been involved with projects throughout 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.

The work started in 2016 and was running smoothly until a dispute arose between the firm and the government.

Man and young girl hugging

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

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

On 7 April, the two men were arrested and disappeared for several days.
They were then held for five months before going to trial, where they were sentenced to five years in jail and a joint fine of US$12 million ($18.4 million). The pair were convicted of fraud.
In March this year, a found he was being arbitrarily detained and that the imprisonment was breaching 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,” Ms Pether said.

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

“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 presented with a new summons and given an additional US$50 million ($75 million) fine, Ms Pather said.

“It’s not actually about actually getting any money back. It’s about a vendetta. So now it’s 50 million and it’s just almost like laughable. It’s it’s just so ridiculously obvious that it’s a setup that they’re hostages.”

‘Something has to be done’

Ms Pether said the Egyptian embassy had been particularly helpful throughout the ordeal.
“I can’t emphasise how amazing the Egyptian embassy has been to us as well as Khalid, their own citizen,” she said.

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

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

Desree and Robert’s daughter Nala was only eight years old when her father was taken into detention. Source: Supplied / Desree Pether

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

“I have had a lot of communication with DFAT,” she said.
“Definitely, absolutely more could be done, and trying to get that done is a daily challenge.”
A spokesperson told SBS News 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 spokesperson said.

“The Australian Government holds concerns for Mr Pether’s health. Officials from the Australian Embassy in Baghdad provide extensive consular support to Mr Pether including visiting him in prison and working with Iraqi authorities to ensure he can access appropriate medical care.”

Greyscale picture of a man smiling

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 and raise awareness for her husband’s situation and get more help.
“We’ll do anything we can to get him out … I’m looking at parking myself outside an embassy and doing a hunger strike because something has to be done,” she 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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