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The family of an Australian businessman arrested in Iraq during a “trap” laid by the country’s central bank say they are enduring a “living nightmare” and are frustrated by Australia’s slow and secretive response.
Mechanical engineer Robert Pether, 46, was arrested in Baghdad roughly three weeks ago, after travelling to Iraq from Dubai to attempt to restart work on the construction of a new headquarters for the Central Bank of Iraq.
After roughly four years of work, the project became mired in a contractual dispute between Pether’s employer and the bank.
His wife Desree Pether, speaking from Ireland, said the bank was, in fact, laying a trap.
“He and his colleague had their suits on and got arrested immediately,” she told the Guardian. “There never was any resolution and there was never any meeting scheduled. It was trap.”
He was not told what he was charged with or the reasons for his detention, his family said, and Desree was not told of his whereabouts.
Desree said it has since emerged that he was kept in isolation for long periods, without access to a phone or computer.
The couple have three children, including a daughter aged eight, and a 17-year-old son currently in the middle of his HSC equivalent.
Desree said the kids have taken the news hard.
“It’s an absolute horrendous nightmare,” she said. “You never dream [this will happen]. He’s worked in the Middle East for 10 years without any problem.
“Our daughter, she’s only eight, she’s a bit oblivious to the ramifications of it. She just keeps asking: ‘When’s Daddy coming home?’”
Pether has been aided by Egyptian authorities who are helping his Egyptian colleague arrested at the same time. They have helped the pair access a phone, which allowed Desree to speak to her husband.
“When I spoke to him, he just kept saying ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.’ I keep saying ‘It’s not your fault, you’ve done nothing wrong. This is not your fault.’
“He’s so upset. He’s terrified.”
But Desree said the Australian government has done little to help her. They have refused to tell her anything about the case, citing privacy laws, and Desree said they have lacked empathy and urgency.
“I rang them right from the word go and they just keep repeating to me ‘under the Privacy Act, we can’t discuss this matter with you’, even though I’m his wife and I made the report in the first place,” she said.
She said the Egyptian embassy is helping to get a form through to her husband giving the department of foreign affairs and trade permission to talk to her about the case.
“Tonight, they actually sent a form, finally, like I’ve been asking all along, to the Egyptian embassy, and they’re getting the form to him tomorrow. So finally, after 21 days, Dfat will talk to me.”
“They have no empathy. No empathy at all. I’m like ‘What would you do if this was your husband? Would you go to the media?’”