Thursday 7th April 2022 marked the 1 year anniversary of Australian citizen Robert Pether’s wrongful imprisonment in Iraq. Robert Pether and his colleague, Khalid Radwan were both detained in Baghdad on 7 April 2021 after they went to Iraq to resolve a business dispute between the Iraqi government and their Dubai-based employer, CME Consulting. CME Consulting is an engineering firm that was hired by the Iraqi government to work on the new headquarters of the Central Bank of Iraq. The project was hit by delays and increased costs due to the COVID pandemic and a dispute arose whereby the Iraqi government demanded the return of $12 million USD paid to CME Consulting. As a result of this dispute between the Iraqi government and CME Consulting, both Robert Pether and Khalid Radwan who are employees of the company were arrested and put in prison.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has stated that their detention is arbitrary and has called for their immediate release. The UN Working Group also stated that their detention is being used to “exercise leverage in a commercial transaction, in violation of international law”.
Robert, his wife and 3 children live in Ireland. On this episode, we have the honour of speaking to Robert’s 18 year old son, Flynn Pether. Flynn talks to us about what happened, his father’s background, the conditions he’s being held in, his health issues, unfair trial as well as how the family have been coping with this ongoing trauma. We also discuss what the Australian government, CME Consulting, journalists and the public can do to help free Robert Pether.
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Free Robert Pether, Australian held in Iraq | Pod Hostage Diplomacy
Daren Nair, Flynn Pether
Daren Nair 00:05
Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world. Together with their families, we share their stories every week, and let you know how you can help bring them home. I'm Daren Nair, and I've had the honour of campaigning with many of these families for years. These are some of the most courageous and resilient people among us. People who have never given up hope, people who will never stop working to reunite their families. And we will be right there by their side until their loved ones are back home. Thank you for joining us. And now, let's meet this week's guest. Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. Thursday 7th April 2022, which was last week, marked the one-year anniversary of Australian citizen, Robert Pether's, wrongful imprisonment in Iraq. Robert Pether and his colleague, Khalid Radwan, were both detained in Baghdad on 7th April 2021, after they went to Iraq to resolve a business dispute between the Iraqi government and their Dubai-based employer, CME Consulting. CME Consulting, which is an engineering firm, was working on the new headquarters for the Central Bank of Iraq. The project was hit by delays and increased costs due to the COVID pandemic, and a dispute arose whereby the Iraqi government demanded the return of twelve million US dollars paid to CME Consulting. As a result of this dispute between the Iraqi government and CME Consulting, both Robert Pether and Khalid Radwan, who worked for the company, were detained and put in prison. In March 2022, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that their detention is arbitrary and has called for their immediate release. The working group has also stated the following: "Robert and Khalid's imprisonment constituted an enforced disappearance. Their detention is being used to exercise leverage in a commercial transaction in violation of international law. The working group also observed that Robert and Khalid were lured into returning to Iraq on the pretext of assisting in an investigation and have been arbitrarily detained without any legal basis. The working group finds credible the numerous allegations of collusion between the judge and the lawyer for the applicants, in this case, the Central Bank of Iraq." Robert, his wife and three children live in Ireland. Today, we have the honour of speaking to Robert's eighteen-year-old son, Flynn Pether. Flynn, I'm so sorry for what you, your father and your family are going through. We'll do everything we can to help. Thanks for joining us.
Flynn Pether 02:53
Thanks for having me, Daren. Good to be here. Just hopefully, we'll be able to meet properly under better situations, and you'll be able to have a conversation with Dad, yourself.
Daren Nair 02:53
Absolutely. And thank you for joining us. So, can you please walk us through what happened?
Flynn Pether 03:11
So, you pretty much got it there in the beginning. They were working on the project for CBI on building the new Bank of Iraq that was supposed to be a billion dollar project. He'd been working on it for four years. And it's... well, it was very symbolic to them. It was suppose to symbolise hope for a new Iraq, a corruption-free Iraq. And then the dispute happened over the time extensions that was outside of their control because of the global pandemic, which he kept the project pretty much on track throughout the global pandemic, dealing with COVID cases in the labour force, etc. Both Dad and Khalid were invited as a result of the dispute, and by the governor, (inaudible) to resolve this dispute. They were invited over to Iraq, in meetings all day, and then the governor walked in at 2pm with twelve of the Iraqi Security Forces and arrested them. And the charges were dropped 24 hours after, but unfortunately they were not released.
Daren Nair 04:22
So, we know your father is an engineer. Can you tell us more about his background?
Flynn Pether 04:27
Yes. My My dad is a mechanical engineer by profession. He first qualified in Sydney, when he was working part-time to get his degree done as well in the industry. And he's worked on numerous high-profile projects. He's very well respected within his industry out there. And, like, if you asked anyone in the industry in the Middle East who Robert Pether was, they would probably be able to tell you or have worked with him at some point.
Daren Nair 04:58
So, what conditions is your father currently being held in?
Flynn Pether 05:02
The conditions now are way better than what they were in the first twelve days, but however. they are still anything far from ideal. He's in a 14-foot cell, which is the equivalent, probably the best way of putting it is if you put two shipping containers side-by-side, that's the size of the cell that they're in. There's no windows. They have one door; that door has bars on it. And it is surrounded wall-to-wall with bunk beds. They have two showers and toilets built into one, with the kitchenette in the middle. And normally, typically, that 14-foot cell is shared with about 21 other people. And there's only beds for 19 men. So, you know, that three would end up having to sleep on the floor. And they'll spend their days sitting on the cushions on the floor after they've moved the beds to one side. And they don't really get to see the light of day very much as they'd only get outside for about half an hour, maybe once a week, give or take.
Daren Nair 06:06
So, that's a small cell with a... with many people in it, too many, to be honest. Is your dad worried about getting COVID?
Flynn Pether 06:20
Like, COVID was a big concern at the start. And then there have been multiple COVID outbreaks within the jail. But it's seems like they have a blatant disregard for, like, kind of as soon as there was one outbreak, they would stop all visits to the prison and everything, and then that was it. They're left to fend for themselves.
Daren Nair 06:41
Does your dad have any other health issues that require medical care? And, if so, has this been provided?
Flynn Pether 06:49
So, yeah. He's... has a stage two... had a stage two melanoma in the past on his ear that was cancerous. And there's a new mole that has appeared in the same site that has been getting progressively worse-looking over time. And he's also had struggles with scabies throughout the time that he's been in the prison. And today, no proper medical attention has been available for them.
Daren Nair 07:24
I'm sorry to hear that. Now, your dad's an Australian citizen. Has he been getting any support from the Australian government such as, at least, has he been allowed any consular visits?
Flynn Pether 07:38
Yeah, he has been allowed consular visits. At first, they were once a week, but now they've been reduced down to fortnightly. And they made the decision to reduce his visits down to fortnightly over Christmas. So, you can imagine that shortly after Christmas, that he spent away from his family, they said that they're no longer going to be visiting him every week.
Daren Nair 07:59
Right now, do you know how he's doing, how he's feeling? When was the last time you got to speak to him?
Flynn Pether 08:05
I would say that the last time that I got to speak to him would be about a week ago. And the... the conversations that we have between each other, they're not like how they were before he was arrested, because there's only so much that you can talk about in such a little period of time. Whenever you ask him how he is or how is everything, he's very dismissive of the subject. And he will always say... repeat the same thing over and over again and he goes, "oh, it's the same four walls." So, it's literally... it's nothing new for him. He sees the same four walls every day, and he's just clinging to the phone calls that he gets to his family.
Daren Nair 08:47
So, at the beginning, in the monologue, I quoted the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that called for your father's immediate release. Obviously, there were issues with the trial. It wasn't fair. Can you just talk to us a bit about the trial, what it was like and why it was an unfair trial?
Flynn Pether 09:07
Like, they were allowed access to a lawyer. However, the first time that they got to meet the lawyer was two days before the court case after five and a half months of being in custody. At the trial, was the initial charges were dropped after 24 hours. So, they were going into the court trial not knowing what they were being accused of until the second day of the trial. And even the Australian Embassy, the Egyptian Embassy, the lawyers, Dad and Khalid all believed that as soon as they were allowed to present their case, because they believed that they were innocent without a shred of doubt, because if they were able to provide the evidence, it was all there. All the invoices, all the requests for extension of time, but not one piece of evidence proving their innocence was ever accepted into a court setting. They were both convicted on hearsay.
Daren Nair 10:06
So, are they... is your father and Khalid being kept in the same location they were kept before the trial, or were they moved to a different prison?
Flynn Pether 10:15
They returned to the same location. Initially, they were told that they were going to be moved, but then they were told later on that they were able to stay in the same location for a portion of the sentence. There is still a possibility they may be moved later on at a date. But we hope we will never have to experience that date.
Daren Nair 10:34
Flynn, you're 18-years-old; your world has been turned upside down. How have you and your family been coping with this trauma?
Flynn Pether 10:42
To say it was turned upside down possibly be an understatement. Everything got torn apart once that happened. Initially, there was a massive shock. As, when it first happened, there was big confusion as to where they were located, what had happened exactly, what the next steps forward were from there, because it's not exactly like there is a precedent for this type of situation. And, in terms of the family, we have grown closer as a family, but also there are huge amounts of milestones that have been missed throughout this time period.
Daren Nair 11:22
Again, I'm sorry that you had to go through this. I'm sorry this is happening to your family. And I mean, this is something that's happening to you and not because of you. It's not your fault. And you're not alone. There are plenty of people who want to help. So, I noticed, Flynn, that your mum has been publicly campaigning to free your father on Twitter, on Instagram, I've seen these posts. I've seen a petition. I've seen articles in the media, the Guardian. And I noticed because whenever something new pops up, your mum sends it to me. So, what approach have you and your family been taking when it comes to campaigning?
Flynn Pether 12:05
Yeah, Mum's a real warrior for continuing on tweeting this long. I believe she's just crossed over her 10,000 or 100,000 milestone in terms of tweets, which is a huge amount. She's really... all day every day, she's trying to get Dad home. We've sent letters to Scott Morrison, Marise Payne, Simon Coveney here in Ireland. And, like, we've just been trying to get... as pretty much anything short of shouting from the rooftops to alert to this situation. To this day, the Irish government has done more to help. But the Australian government never really replied to those letters.
Daren Nair 12:50
Your dad is an Australian citizen. And before he was taken, he and the rest of your family live in Ireland. But your father is not an Irish citizen or legal Irish resident, yet? Is that the case?
Flynn Pether 13:05
No. Yeah, he started on the process, but because of COVID and everything that had happened, he wasn't able to complete the process.
Daren Nair 13:13
Okay. So, what should the Australian Government be doing better?
Flynn Pether 13:19
They should step up more and do more in their power to help. They can fix this solution. All it takes would be a phone call from a person of a high enough position to the right person, and we can resolve this conflict.
Daren Nair 13:36
So, if you got to speak directly to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, what would you say to him?
Flynn Pether 13:44
I would... At first, I'd merely ask him what his plans were to get my dad out of jail. As Dad was one of the top practising engineers in Australia. So, what would we be doing to remedy the situation? And even as an Australian citizen, what would we be doing to get one of our own home?
Daren Nair 14:08
Is there anything that other countries can do to help?
Flynn Pether 14:11
I would say yes. Well, I wouldn't necessarily be clear in the path that they would be able to take to intervene in this situation. But if we all work together, I'm sure there is a solution to this problem.
Daren Nair 14:24
What should your father's employer, CME Consulting, do?
Flynn Pether 14:28
They should really stand up for their employees. Ah, if I was a director in CME, I would be shouting it from the rooftops that Iraq would not be a safe place to work in, considering that two of my employees are trapped in arbitrary detention settings. And they brushed it underneath... the project has been brushed underneath the carpet like this has never happened and continued on all this time.
Daren Nair 14:54
So, my understanding is that the contract between CME Consulting, your father's employer, and the client, which in this case is the Central Bank of Iraq was a FIDIC contract. FIDIC stands for International Federation of Consulting Engineers, of which one of the fundamental principles is that employees hold no personal liability. So, your father and Khalid are employees who have been charged in response to the Central Bank of Iraq's allegations against their employer, CME Consulting. So, this is a dispute between the Central Bank of Iraq and CME Consulting. And yet they arrested two employees of CME Consulting and pinned the $12 million fine on just your dad and Khalid. And it seems that CME Consulting seem to have abandoned them.
Flynn Pether 16:00
Yeah. That is correct. Under the FIDIC contract, they are not liable. As employees, it would moreso be two companies that would need to be trialled in an international court, to understand as to why these delays have occurred and how to remedy them. They're essentially... Dad and Khalid have been used, taken, kidnapped, and then been used as high-value bargaining chips to try and leverage their way into regaining some of that money.
Daren Nair 16:35
Again, I'm sorry, this is happening. And 12 million US dollars. This is, unless your dad and Khalid can pay up, this is pretty much a life sentence.
Flynn Pether 16:47
Yeah. Yeah, it's allegedly we were told that the fine would go away after time. However, I'm not too sure whether I can comment on the fact that when they were first arrested, they would say if the $12 million was paid, straightaway, this would all go away. So, effectively, they've been held for ransom.
Daren Nair 17:11
Have you been receiving any support from NGOs?
Flynn Pether 17:14
Yeah. Overall support, we've got very little to no support from Amnesty, but Hostage International have been doing miles to help. And ALEF, based in the US, tried to help as best as they could, but their hands were tied with the situation and its complexity.
Daren Nair 17:35
I know you've got some decent media coverage in The Guardian. And that's great. Now, what should journalists and the news media be doing more to help?
Flynn Pether 17:47
Oh, really, we just need to bring the story further to light. 99% of the reporters that have agreed on... to take on Dad's story have been absolutely amazing. We just need more people to see this for what it is.
Daren Nair 18:03
What can the public do to help?
Flynn Pether 18:07
The public... just really if we can bring more awareness to it? Because it's... you never know what can happen in this type of situation. As I've said previously, in previous reports, is that we're realistically, we're trying to play a game of chess here, and they're playing Connect 4. It's two different ballparks. We can't ascertain as to what's happening.
Daren Nair 18:30
We're almost at the end of our interview, Flynn. Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
Flynn Pether 18:35
Just the fact that this has nearly gone on for a whole year. Well, we have passed the one-year anniversary of their kidnapping. And still to this day, they're two completely innocent men and justice has not prevailed in a broken system. And if... if they were striving to a corruption-free new Iraq, how has this been able to go on for so long?
Daren Nair 19:00
If people want to keep up with your campaign to free your father, or people want to get in contact with yourselves? And when I say yourselves, I mean you, your mum, what can they do?
Flynn Pether 19:13
There's a hashtag there on social media, #FreeRobertPether. And if anyone wanted to talk about it, normally she'd send us a DM or something like that. I would be normally happy to talk about it provided I have the time. But even calling for public accountability for people that have the power to do something in this situation, but choose to do nothing, is probably the best way that we would be able to help.
Daren Nair 19:50
Flynn, once again I'm so sorry for what your family is going through. We will be right here campaigning by your side until your father comes back home. Thank you for joining us.
Flynn Pether 19:59
No worries. Thank you for having me.
Daren Nair 20:06
Thank you for listening to this week's episode of Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We're not just a podcast, we're a community. If you're on Twitter and would like to post a message of solidarity to the families or have any questions for us, please tweet it using the hashtag #PodHostageDiplomacy and we will get back to you. If you like what we're trying to do, please do consider supporting the show financially. You can do this using the support the show link in the description of this podcast episode. We're grateful for any contributions, no matter how small. Thanks again for listening, and we'll be back next week. Take care.