Irish family of engineer held in Baghdad living a ‘nightmare’

‘We will do everything we possibly can’ to help resolve this situation, says Taoiseach

The Irish family of an engineer, who was arrested three weeks ago after being summoned to a meeting in Iraq, have spoken to him for the first time since his detention.

Co Roscommon-based Desree Pether said her husband, Robert Pether (46), an Australian citizen, was “terrified” when she spoke to him by phone on Tuesday and still had no idea what charge was being made against him. He had attended one court hearing which was conducted in Arabic and had spent two weeks in solitary confinement, she said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he had been made aware of the case, which was raised in the Seanad this week by Senator Eugene Murphy. “We will do everything we possibly can,” Mr Martin said on Wednesday. “We know this must be a very difficult time for his family. We’re working with the Australian government, which is taking the lead.” The Taoiseach said the Department of Foreign Affairs was working on the case.

Mr Pether is being detained with an Egyptian colleague who was arrested with him on April 7th, when they both turned up for a purported meeting in Baghdad with the governor of the Central Bank of Iraq.


“There was no meeting. There were no pleasantries. They were met by 12 security officers and arrested and marched to a compound,” said Ms Pether who is an Irish citizen. She said her husband was forced to hand over his phone, laptop and hard drive and had no idea if his family knew what had become of him. He spent two weeks in the suit he had worn to the meeting and “doesn’t even have a toothbrush”. However, she said her husband had reassured her that he was not being ill treated.


Ms Pether said the two men were “pawns in a game of chess” and were caught up in a dispute between their company and its client, the central bank. Mr Pether had been overseeing the construction of a new headquarters for the central bank in Baghdad, a project which is ongoing for four years.

Recently he had been working on a different project in Dubai but was asked to return to Baghdad to meet the governor to sort out the problems, Ms Pether explained.

“He rang the Australian embassy in Baghdad three days before he left Dubai and they assured him he would be safe,” she said.

Ms Pether said her husband “feels betrayed” and told her the Australian embassy had done nothing. She said all the information she had been getting from Baghdad was coming through the family of his Egyptian colleague.

“Rob knows even less than we do. He doesn’t know where he is being held,” she said. Her husband “has done nothing wrong” and had in fact been praised for the way the project, which he had overseen for four years, had progressed, she said.

Mr Pether was allowed access to a phone after 20 days when the Egyptian embassy arranged a visit for his colleague, according to his wife whose late father is from Dublin and who was raised in Australia. The family has been living in Elphin, Co Roscommon for two years.

Mr Pether arrived in Baghdad from Dubai on April 1st and continued to work on the project until April 7th when he went as arranged to a lunchtime meeting. Ms Pether said her husband, who normally texted her several times a day and rang the family every evening, was very emotional when he unexpectedly got to speak to her this week.

"When I told him his case had been raised in the Seanad he cried. He felt so hopeless and he is so touched at the support in Ireland. " Mr Pether was "beside himself" about his children and especially his eldest son Flynn who was doing his Leaving Cert, she added.

Mr Pether was due home in Elphin this week to celebrate his birthday with his wife and three children, Flynn (17), Oscar (15) and Nala (8). Both Flynn and Oscar are Irish citizens and Ms Pether said Nala and Robert were applying for Irish citizenship but Covid-19 had slowed the process .

Ms Pether said it was "like living your worst nightmare. It's like being in a Hollywood blockbuster. I keep waking up every morning thinking it was a bad dream."

The central bank building was the last one designed by the celebrated British Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid who died in 2016.

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland