Guardian uncovers documents at odds with evidence used to jail Australian engineer in Iraq
Documents uncovered by The Guardian have called into question critical evidence used by Iraqi authorities to imprison Australian engineer Robert Pether, sparking calls for his release.
Pether and his colleague Khaled Saad Zaghloul were sentenced to five years in prison in 2021 and fined $12 million following allegations that their engineering firm defrauded the Iraqi government during the construction of the Central Bank of Iraq’s new headquarters.
CME Consulting, Pether’s employer, was accused of continuing to charge the government for the work of a subcontractor, Meinhardt, despite telling Meinhardt to cease all operations on the project almost immediately after the two firms signed a contract.
According to testimony obtained by Guardian Australia, a Meinhardt employee told an Iraqi court in May 2021 that CME had told the subcontractor to halt work “three weeks after signing the contract.”
The Meinhardt employee’s testimony said: “We left the issue and the accused, Khaled Saad Zaghloul, did not contact us at all.
“(We) told (the Central Bank of Iraq) that the accused Khaled Saad Zaghloul informed us in 2017 that the project had stopped so we left the case and we did not send any of our engineers to the project site and did not provide any engineering consultations.”
However, email communication suggests that considerable contact between CME and Meinhardt lasted for months, contradicting what the court was told.
According to records obtained by The Guardian, CME and top Meinhardt personnel exchanged 51 emails between January and July 2018. The last of these was dated over six months after the contract.
From May to late June 2018, the Meinhardt employee who provided the prosecution testimony was copied into five CME-Meinhardt communications, six months after he claimed all interaction had halted.
Meanwhile, Pether, a father of three, alleged that a “confession” statement used against him was mistranslated by a biased employee of Iraq’s central bank before being handed to court.
Pether told The Guardian: “I recognized (my) translator as soon as he came into the room. He was known to me since 2016.
“Apart from facial recognition, he also has some distinguishing marks and characteristics.”
The Guardian has obtained contemporaneous court records confirming Pether brought this up during his criminal trial and complained that his translated statement was flawed and incorrect.
The record read: “The judge asked if there was an issue with the translator. Mr. Pether advised that the translator used by the investigation court was an employee of CBI. The judge then asked if he was biased. Mr. Pether said yes.”
Pether has now spent two years in a Baghdad detention cell after his arrest there in April 2021.
CME was preparing to withdraw personnel from Iraq when the central bank wrote a letter to its Dubai headquarters on Mar. 29, 2021, demanding a “meeting in Baghdad urgently to discuss and resolve the dispute according to the terms of the contract and not through illegal withdrawal.”
“They were lured into returning to Iraq and are detained under false pretenses and on fabricated charges,” the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found in a November 2021 report.
“A representative of the central bank allegedly stated at one stage that this would ‘all go away’ if CME made large financial concessions and if (Pether and Zaghloul) agreed to stay in Iraq and finish working on the project for free.”
The Iraqi central bank had not paid any CME invoices for seven months, demanding CME accept the loss and continue working for free to compensate for project delays that were caused by a second central bank contractor.
The Central Bank of Iraq, the Iraq Prime Minister’s Office, the Iraqi Foreign Affairs Ministry and embassy to Australia did not respond to detailed questions by the time of The Guardian article’s publication.
“I have asked the Australian government to work with their close partners and the Iraq government at the highest levels to help secure my release,” Pether said.