The wife of an Australian engineer imprisoned in Iraq has threatened to start a hunger strike outside the Iraqi embassy in London, unless the Baghdad authorities move to release him.
Robert Bazar and fellow Egyptian Khaled Zaghoul are currently serving a five-year prison sentence in Muthanna prison in Baghdad, after a contract they were working on to build a new headquarters for the Central Bank of Iraq fell through. The men were arrested in April 2021 after they traveled to Baghdad to meet the central bank governor.
A strongly worded report (pdf) released in March by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said the men were being held arbitrarily and called on the government to immediately release them.
However, there has been no positive move on the case for months, and Robert Desree’s wife said she was very worried about his health.
“Robert and Khaled have been sitting there for nearly 20 months trying to figure out how to prove their innocence,” she said. They were never allowed to present any evidence to prove their innocence. They are pawns in a game of chess. It’s collateral damage.”
The two men have been charged with a slew of additional charges since their arrest, with authorities now seeking $50 million from them — up from the initial $12 million fine. What frustrates men and their families is that they are not even clear about the purpose of the money.
“It’s fluid. It’s constantly changing,” says Desree. “Even with $12 million from their case last year, we never received an official explanation of what it was for. We vaguely know why, but we don’t quite know.”
The two men applied for a retrial about ten weeks ago, but that request was recently denied.
Desri organized a protest outside the Iraqi embassy in London on 22 November, in an attempt to raise awareness of the issue and try to pressure the Iraqi authorities to resolve the situation. She says she is ready to go further.
“It can’t go on. It’s getting worse. Robert and Khaled see he’s been sentenced to life in prison,” she said, speaking in London the day after the protest.
She has since moved back to Ireland, where she now lives with her three children, but plans to return soon.
I told the embassy: I need to see improvement in the next two weeks. Things have gone downhill. If a person cannot see a hostage situation, they are either as complicit or as corrupt as the people who do. I said this has to stop. Impunity must stop.
“And if that doesn’t change in the next two weeks, I’ll come back and I’ll sit in the front and go on a hunger strike. I can’t just sit back and watch it get slowly killed and do nothing.”
Desri Pither hopes the recent change of government in Baghdad will help resolve the situation. Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani took office on 28 October and called on Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to pressure his counterpart to resolve the situation.
“There is a new prime minister in Iraq and it would be really nice if Albanese would call him to congratulate him and maybe bring up the fact that he spoke to the previous prime minister 16-17 weeks ago and nothing improved in fact,” she said.
The UN Working Group’s report, released in March, outlined a deeply disturbing account of the ordeal experienced by Bazar and Zaghoul, with allegations of torture and ill-treatment, an unfair trial, lack of access to a lawyer, and the authorities’ failure to respond adequately. for serious medical problems.
The UN report concluded that the two men were initially held in a “de facto enforced disappearance” and that the Iraqi state had violated several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The report said the arrest and detention of the two men was arbitrary, as well as violating their right to a fair trial and due process. The report concluded by calling on the Iraqi government to “immediately and unconditionally release” the two men.
The Iraqi government has not yet provided an official response to the Working Group’s report.
Neither the Iraqi Embassy in London nor CME Consulting, the employer of Pether and Zhagoul, responded to requests for comment for this article.