Guardian uncovers documents at odds with evidence used to jail Australian engineer in Iraq

Australian-born Irish citizen Robert Pether and his Egyptian colleague was found guilty of deception by an Iraqi judge. (Supplied)
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Updated 28 April 2023
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Guardian uncovers documents at odds with evidence used to jail Australian engineer in Iraq

  • Pether alleged that a “confession” statement used against him was mistranslated by a biased employee of Iraq’s central bank
  • Pether and Zaghloul were sentenced to five years in prison in 2021 and fined $12 million

LONDON: 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.
 


US will not take part in retaliatory action against Iran, White House says

Updated 6 sec ago
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US will not take part in retaliatory action against Iran, White House says

  • The US will continue to help Israel defend itself, but does not want war, John Kirby, the White House’s top national security spokesperson, said

JERUSALEM/DUBAI/WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the US will not take part in a counter-offensive against Iran if Israel decides to retaliate for a mass drone and missile attack on Israeli territory overnight, a White House official said.
The threat of open warfare erupting between the arch Middle East foes and dragging in the United States has put the region on edge, triggering calls for restraint from global powers and Arab nations to avoid further escalation.
US media reported earlier on Sunday that Biden had informed Netanyahu he would not participate in retaliatory action in a phone call overnight. The remarks were confirmed to Reuters by a White House official.
The US will continue to help Israel defend itself, but does not want war, John Kirby, the White House’s top national security spokesperson, told ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday.
Iran launched the attack over a suspected Israeli strike on its consulate in Syria on April 1 that killed top Revolutionary Guards commanders and followed months of clashes between Israel and Iran’s regional allies, triggered by the war in Gaza.
However, the attack from more than 300 missiles and drones, mostly launched from inside Iran, caused only modest damage in Israel as most were shot down with the help of the US, Britain and Jordan.
An Air Force base in southern Israel was hit, but continued to operate as normal and a 7-year old child was seriously hurt by shrapnel. There were no other reports of serious damage.
Two senior Israeli ministers signalled on Sunday that retaliation by Israel is not imminent and it would not act alone.
“We will build a regional coalition and exact the price from Iran in the fashion and timing that is right for us,” centrist minister Benny Gantz said ahead of a war cabinet meeting.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant also said Israel had an opportunity to form a strategic alliance against “against this grave threat by Iran which is threatening to mount nuclear explosives on these missiles, which could be an extremely grave threat,” he said. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
Iranian army chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri warned on television that “our response will be much larger than tonight’s military action if Israel retaliates against Iran” and told Washington its bases could also be attacked if it helped Israel retaliate.
Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian said Tehran had informed the United States its attack on Israel would be “limited” and for self defense and that regional neighbors had also been informed of its planned strikes 72-hours in advance.
A Turkish diplomatic source said Iran had informed Turkiye in advance of what would happen.
Iran said the attack was aimed at punishing “Israeli crimes” but it now “deemed the matter concluded.”
Russia, China, France and Germany as well as Arab states Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates urged restraint and the UN Security Council was set to meet at 4 p.m. ET (2000 GMT) on Sunday.
“We will do everything to stop a further escalation,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on a visit to China. “We can only warn everyone, especially Iran, against continuing this way.”
Turkiye also warned Iran it did not want further tension in the region.
ESCALATION
Analysts debated how far Iran’s attack was calibrated to cause genuine devastation in Israel, or to save face at home after vows of revenge while avoiding a major new war.
“I think the Iranians took into consideration the fact that Israel has a very, very strong multi-layer anti-missile system and they probably took into consideration that there will not be too many casualties,” said Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
But if Iran was hoping for a muted response, like with its missile attacks on US forces in Iraq after the killing of Guards commander Qassem Soleimani in 2020, she warned “I don’t think Israel sees it this way.”
On Saturday Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized an Israel-linked cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important energy shipping routes, underscoring the risks to the world economy of a wider conflict.
Some flights were suspended in countries across the region and share prices fell in stock markets in Israel and Gulf states.
The war in Gaza, which Israel invaded after an attack by Iran-backed Hamas on Oct. 7, has spread to fronts with Iran-aligned groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Iran’s most powerful ally in the region, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah fired rockets at an Israeli base overnight. Israel said it struck a Hezbollah site deep inside Lebanon on Sunday morning.
Yemen’s Houthis, who have been firing missiles at ships in the Red Sea in what they say is support for the Palestinians, called Iran’s attack legitimate.
The Oct. 7 attack in which Israel says 1,200 were killed and 253 taken hostage, along with internal discontent with the government and international pressure over the war in Gaza, form the backdrop to Netanyahu’s decisions over a response. At least 33,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its military offensive, according to authorities in the enclave.
The Israeli prime minister has for years advocated a tough military line against Iran, pushing the United States for harder action over Tehran’s nuclear program and its backing for Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups in the region.
In Israel, although there was alarm at the first direct attack from another country in more than three decades, the mood was in contrast to the trauma after the Hamas-led attack on Oct.7.
“I think we’ve been given license to respond now. I mean it was a major attack from Iran... I imagine Israel will respond and may be over quickly and get back to normal life,” said Jeremy Smith, 60.
In Iran, state television showed small gatherings in several cities celebrating the attack, but in private some Iranians were worried about Israel’s response.
“Iran gave Netanyahu a golden opportunity to attack our country. But we, the people of Iran, will bear the brunt of this conflict,” said Shima, a 29-year-old nurse, from Tehran.


Iran warns Israel against retaliation, global powers urge restraint

Updated 14 April 2024
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Iran warns Israel against retaliation, global powers urge restraint

  • Tehran had informed the US its attack on Israel would be ‘limited’ and for self defense

JERUSALEM/DUBAI/WASHINGTON: Iran warned Israel and the United States on Sunday of a much larger response if there is any retaliation for its mass drone and missile attack on Israeli territory overnight, as Israel said “the campaign is not over yet.”

The threat of open warfare erupting between the arch Middle East foes and dragging in the United States has put the region on edge as Washington said America did not seek conflict with Iran but would not hesitate to protect its forces and Israel.

Iran launched the attack over a suspected Israeli strike on its consulate in Syria on April 1 that killed top Revolutionary Guards commanders and followed months of clashes between Israel and Iran’s regional allies, triggered by the war in Gaza.

However, the attack from hundreds of missiles and drones, mostly launched from inside Iran, caused only modest damage in Israel as most were shot down with the help of the US, Britain and Jordan.

An Air Force base in southern Israel was hit, but continued to operate as normal and a 7-year old child was seriously hurt by shrapnel. There were no other reports of serious damage.

“We intercepted, we repelled, together we shall win,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on social media ahead of a planned 1230 GMT meeting of the war cabinet to discuss a response to the attack.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said despite thwarting the attack, the military campaign was not over and “we must be prepared for every scenario.”

Israel’s Channel 12 TV cited an unnamed Israeli official overnight as saying there would be a “significant response” to the attack.

Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian said Tehran had informed the United States its attack on Israel would be “limited” and for self defense.

He said Israel’s neighbors had also been informed of its planned strikes 72-hours in advance.

Global powers Russia, China, France and Germany as well as Arab states Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates urged restraint.

“We will do everything to stop a further escalation,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters during a visit to China. “We can only warn everyone, especially Iran, against continuing this way.”

Turkiye also warned Iran it did not want further tension in the region.

The Islamic Republic’s mission to the United Nations said its actions were aimed at punishing “Israeli crimes,” but that it now “deemed the matter concluded.”

Iranian army chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri warned on television that “our response will be much larger than tonight’s military action if Israel retaliates against Iran” and told Washington its bases could also be attacked if it helped Israel retaliate.

US President Joe Biden has pledged “ironclad” support for Israel against Iran, but did not announce any military response on Saturday night, saying instead he would coordinate a diplomatic response with other Western leaders.

The UN Security Council was set to meet at 4 p.m. ET (2000 GMT) on Sunday.

ESCALATION

Analysts debated how far Iran’s attack was calibrated to cause genuine devastation in Israel, or to save face at home after vows of revenge while avoiding a major new war.

“I think the Iranians took into consideration the fact that Israel has a very, very strong multi-layer anti-missile system and they probably took into consideration that there will not be too many casualties,” said Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

But if Iran was hoping for a muted response, like with its missile attacks on US forces in Iraq after the killing of Guards commander Qassem Soleimani in 2020, she warned “I don’t think Israel sees it this way.”

On Saturday Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized an Israel-linked cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important energy shipping routes, underscoring the risks to the world economy of a wider conflict.

Some flights were suspended in countries across the region and share prices fell in stock markets in Israel and Gulf states.

The war in Gaza, which Israel invaded after an attack by Iran-backed Hamas on Oct. 7, has spread to fronts with Iran-aligned groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

Iran’s most powerful ally in the region, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah fired rockets at an Israeli base overnight. Israel said it struck a Hezbollah site deep inside Lebanon on Sunday morning.

Yemen’s Houthis, who have been firing missiles at ships in the Red Sea in what they say is support for the Palestinians, called Iran’s attack legitimate.

The Oct. 7 attack in which 1,200 Israelis were killed and 253 taken hostage, along with internal discontent with the government and international pressure over the war in Gaza, form the backdrop to Netanyahu’s decisions over a response.

The Israeli prime minister has for years advocated a tough military line against Iran, pushing the United States for harder action over Tehran’s nuclear program and its backing for Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups in the region.

In Jerusalem on Sunday, Israelis described their fear during the attack, when sirens wailed and the night sky was shaken by blasts, but differed on how the country should respond.

“I think we’ve been given license to respond now. I mean it was a major attack from Iran... I imagine Israel will respond and may be over quickly and get back to normal life,” said Jeremy Smith, 60.

In Iran, state television showed small gatherings in several cities celebrating the attack, but in private some Iranians were worried about Israel’s response.

“Iran gave Netanyahu a golden opportunity to attack our country. But we, the people of Iran, will bear the brunt of this conflict,” said Shima, a 29-year-old nurse, from Tehran.


Hamas and Israel exchange recriminations over stalled Gaza talks

Updated 14 April 2024
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Hamas and Israel exchange recriminations over stalled Gaza talks

  • Without explicitly rejecting the draft deal, Hamas reiterated its long-standing demands for a permanent ceasefire

JERUSALEM: Israel and Hamas have accused each other of undermining negotiations for a truce in Gaza and a hostage release deal, although the talks have not collapsed.

On Saturday, while Hamas-backer Iran was preparing to launch hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel in retaliation for a deadly Damascus strike, the Palestinian militant group announced that it had delivered its response to the latest ceasefire proposal.

Without explicitly rejecting the draft deal, Hamas reiterated its long-standing demands for a permanent ceasefire and the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, which Israeli officials have repeatedly opposed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instead reiterated his determination to launch a ground invasion of Rafah, the last city in Gaza yet to face such a fate and which Israel insists is Hamas’s last major holdout.

On Saturday, Netanyahu accused Hamas of being the “only obstacle” to a deal that would free the hostages still held by Gaza militants.

“The cabinet and the security forces are united in their opposition to these unfounded demands,” he said, adding that Hamas “has refused any deal and any compromise proposal.”

On Sunday, Israel’s Mossad spy agency said in a statement released by Netanyahu’s office that Hamas had rejected the proposal, and said it “proves” that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar “does not want a humanitarian deal and the return of the hostages.”

Sinwar was “continuing to exploit the tension with Iran,” Mossad said, and was aiming for “a general escalation in the region.”

The comments came just hours before Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel, the vast majority of which intercepted according to Israel.

Mossad said Israel would “continue to work to achieve the objectives of the war against Hamas with all its might, and will turn every stone to bring back the hostages from Gaza.”

Despite the apparent gulf between the two sides, the talks, mediated by Egypt, the United States and Qatar, are ongoing in the Egyptian capital.

“The negotiations are not at a standstill” but the mediators will have to go back to the drawing board, said Hasni Abidi of CERMAM, a Geneva-based think tank specializing in the Mediterranean and the Arab world.

A framework being circulated in Cairo would halt fighting for six weeks and see the exchange of about 40 hostages for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, as well as more aid deliveries into the besieged Gaza Strip.

A Hamas source told AFP that, ultimately, later stages of the ceasefire would see all hostages released, Israel withdrawing all its forces from Gaza, the lifting of the siege and the reconstruction of the territory.

However, so far every attempt to negotiate a durable ceasefire in the six-month-long war has failed.

In November, a seven-day truce enabled the exchange of 80 hostages for 240 Palestinian prisoners, as well as 25 captives freed outside of the truce mechanism.

The war broke out with Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.

Israel’s retaliatory attack, aimed at destroying Hamas, has killed at least 33,729 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Palestinian militants also took about 250 hostages, 129 of whom remain in Gaza, including 34 the Israeli army says are dead.

Israel withdrew most of its troops from the Gaza Strip on the six-month anniversary of the war, leaving only a single brigade in central Gaza, while continuing to launch air strikes and bombardments.

Netanyahu has repeated his determination to launch a ground invasion of Rafah, where around 1.5 million Gazans are sheltering from the war, despite opposition from Israel’s top ally the United States.

He also faces increasing pressure from the Israeli public and the families of the hostages, with mass weekly demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem demanding an end to his government and the return of the captives.


Iraq PM arrives in Washington

Updated 14 April 2024
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Iraq PM arrives in Washington

Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shiaa Al-Sudani arrived in Washington, DC, on Sunday embarking on an official visit at the invitation of US President Joe Biden.

Discussions during Al-Sudani's visit will encompass various aspects of the bilateral relationship between the US and Iraq, including security and defense partnership and economic ties.

This emphasis on economic cooperation comes amidst ongoing negotiations between Washington and Baghdad concerning the future of the US-led military coalition in Iraq. As both parties engage in dialogue, the visit presents a significant opportunity to bolster economic collaboration and deepen the longstanding ties between the United States and Iraq.


Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon reopen airspace after Iran attacks

Updated 14 April 2024
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Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon reopen airspace after Iran attacks

  • Jordan’s state TV said the country had resumed air traffic operations, citing aviation authorities
  • Tehran’s Mehrabad airport and airports in several other Iranian cities have canceled domestic flights

CAIRO: Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon have reopened their airspace on Sunday after closing it late on Saturday as Iran launched drone and missile attacks against Israel, the three countries said on Sunday.

Jordan’s state TV said the country had resumed air traffic operations, citing aviation authorities. The opening of its airspace came more than three hours earlier than scheduled. 

Jordan announced the closure of its airspace to all incoming, departing, and transiting flights temporarily starting from 20:00 UTC, 11:00pm local time on Saturday, for several hours. 

The commission said at the time that the decision was taken to ensure the security and safety of civil aviation in the Jordanian airspace.

Iraq’s aviation authority said security risks had now been overcome.

Many flying objects were spotted over Jordan with images and videos circulated on social media showing air-defense systems shooting them down over the capital Amman and the northwestern regions on the borders with Syria and Israel.

Following a cabinet meeting early on Sunday, Jordanian government called for self-restraint and de-escalation, the Jordanian news agency, Petra, reported.

The government also said that Jordan dealt with some “flying objects” over the Kingdom on Sunday night and shot them down, adding that some shrapnels fell on uninhabited areas and no injuries were reported.

Lebanon said its airport will resume its activities after the overnight closure, state TV reported.

Tehran’s Mehrabad airport and airports in several other Iranian cities have canceled domestic flights until Monday morning due to Middle East tensions, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported on Sunday, as the country’s western airspace remains off limits to flights.

Iran launched explosive drones and fired missiles at Israel late on Saturday — its first direct attack on Israeli territory in a retaliatory strike that raises the threat of wider regional conflict.

Jordan, which lies between Iran and Israel, had readied air defenses to intercept any drones or missiles that violated its territory, two regional security sources said.

US and British warplanes were involved in shooting down some Israel-bound drones over the Iraq-Syria border area, Israel’s Channel 12 reported.

Iranian airports cancel flights until Monday morning

Several Iranian airports including Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International have canceled flights until Monday, Iranian state media reported on Sunday, as tensions flared in the Middle East with Iran’s attack on Israel overnight.

“All flights from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport have been canceled until 6 a.m. (0230 GMT) following an announcement by Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization,” the airport’s executive told the Iranian Student News Agency.
Domestic flights from Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport and airports in Shiraz, Isfahan, Bushehr, Kerman, Ilam, and Sanandaj have also been canceled until Monday morning, according to Iran’s Airports and Air Navigation Company, as the country’s western airspace remains off limits to flights.
Major airlines across the Middle East have announced the cancelation of some of their flights, while having to reroute others.