Robert Pether, an Australian Detained in Iraq

House of Representatives 1/08/2022

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (19:55): Dr Yang Hengjun is an Australian citizen arbitrarily detained in China. Sean Turnell is an Australian citizen arbitrarily detained by the military junta in Myanmar. Chau Van Kham is a 72-year-old Vietnamese-Australian detained for his political beliefs in Vietnam. Cheng Lei is an Australian citizen and journalist jailed in China. There are many Australians enduring very tough conditions—harsh conditions—in detention overseas.

Many of us here in this place, on all sides of the chamber, have spoken out on behalf of these Australians—in the media and in this place. I speak on behalf of one tonight: Robert Pether, an Australian citizen detained in an Iraqi prison. Robert Pether is an Australian father of three, and husband to Desree Pether. Not many people have heard of Robert Pether; Robert Pether is not a household name. He is not on the nightly news or on the front page of the paper, but he has now been imprisoned in Iraq since April 2021, last year—for more than a year; 16 long, horrible months. That’s why in this place it’s important that we shine a spotlight on his case and continue to advocate to the Iraqi government for Robert’s release and safe return home to his family.

In April 2021, Robert flew to Iraq to resolve a dispute between the Central Bank of Iraq and his employer, engineering firm CME Consulting. Robert and his colleague, Khalid Zaghloul, an Egyptian national, were arrested in Baghdad. Robert was sentenced to five years imprisonment on deception charges and fined US$12 million over a contractual dispute between his employer and the Central Bank of Iraq. Robert Pether maintains his innocence. He raised issues related to his access to justice and his treatment, including that he had no knowledge that he had signed a confession because it was a document given to him in Arabic. He doesn’t read or write Arabic.

Robert is enduring the difficult and harsh conditions of his detention, while his health has rapidly deteriorated. His case is dire. He is struggling with his physical and mental health. I have spoken to Desree, Robert’s wife, and she tells me he has lost a lot of weight as well. Robert is also a cancer survivor, and Robert’s doctor has noted he is also concerned that his melanomas may have returned. He urgently needs a biopsy to confirm this diagnosis.

The strain on Robert is terrible, but so is the pain of his family—the pain they’ve had to endure for over 16 months—his wife, Desree, and his children, Nala, Oscar and Flynn. The Pether family have sold a property to help pay for Robert’s legal fees, and, I think, a car as well. All they want is Robert to return home safely. His daughter, Nala, draws pictures of what she plans to do with dad when he gets out and is back home. Desree tells me it’s hard to keep the kids’ and Robert’s hopes up.

We in the Albanese Labor government are doing all that we can to support Robert and his family. I know that Desree was heartened to learn that a constructive phone conversation occurred between the Prime Minister and his counterpart, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, taking place in early July. Our diplomats are working around the clock in Baghdad and in Canberra, doing everything they can to assist Robert and to pursue his case. And in this place I—and I think, hopefully, I will be joined in a bipartisan way by my colleagues—call on the Iraqi government to consider Robert’s case and grant him the clemency which is available under Iraqi law and/or release Robert on compassionate grounds, given his dire health condition. This is also available under Iraqi law, particularly as he has already spent almost a year and a half in detention.

I call on the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mr Kadhimi, and President Barham Salih to take these actions on compassionate grounds. And I hope—as, I think, we all hope—that we will soon see Robert Pether home safely with Desree, Nala, Oscar and Flynn.