May 11, 2022

SITREP Pod: Free Robert Pether, Australian held in Iraq | Pod Hostage Diplomacy

SITREP Pod: Free Robert Pether, Australian held in Iraq | Pod Hostage Diplomacy

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 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 $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 work for the company were detained 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.

We interviewed Robert’s 18 year old son, Flynn Pether last month and unfortunately since then, things have gotten worse. Two new court cases have been brought against Robert and Khalid. They are also being sued for an additional $20 million USD. 

On this week’s episode, we are joined by Robert’s wife and Flynn’s mother – Desree Pether. Desree talks to us about what happened including recent developments, how this trauma has affected the family as well as what the Australian government, journalists and the public can do to help bring Robert back home to his family.

For more information on Robert Pether, please check out the following:

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SITREP Pod: Free Robert Pether, Australian held in Iraq | Pod Hostage Diplomacy


Daren Nair, Desree Pether

Daren Nair: 

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. Last month, we interviewed 18-year-old Flynn Pether. His father, Robert Pether, is an Australian citizen who has been unjustly detained in Iraq for over a year. Since we spoke to Flynn, there have been worrying developments in his case. Now, let's take a step back and start with some background information.
 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, which is an engineering firm, was working on the new headquarters for the Central Bank of Iraq. This project was hit by delays and increased costs, due to the COVID19 pandemic, and a dispute arose whereby the Iraqi government demanded the return of $12 million U.S. 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 [(2:00)] company, were detained and put in prison.
 In March 2022, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) stated that their detention is arbitrary and called for their immediate release. The Working Group 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 same Working Group finds credible the numerous allegations of collusion between the judge and the lawyer for the applicants, the Central Bank of Iraq.
 When we interviewed Flynn Pether last month, we told him, we would keep campaigning with his family until his father came home, and we meant it. We will keep our listeners up-to-date with Robert's case using SITREP Pods like this one or Breaking News Pods. If you haven't already, please do listen to our previous episode with Flynn on our website or on your podcast app.

Now, Robert's wife and three children live in Ireland. On this week's episode, we'll be hearing from Robert's wife and Flynn's mother, Desree Pether. We are very sorry for what the Pether family has been going through and we'll do everything we can to help. Here is Desree herself, giving us an overview of what happened to Robert, the recent worrying developments, as well as how this trauma, this wrongful imprisonment, has impacted her family.

Desree Pether: 

Back to the beginning, [(4:00)] well, Rob is a mechanical engineer and he does all the specialized buildings. He helps design and he builds buildings, such as space stations and museums and labs and hospitals, particularly, and now, a bank. And he was working for the past four and a half years on the new Zaha Hadid-designed Central Bank of Iraq in Baghdad. And everything was going along swimmingly. They even got a letter from the client, the Central Bank of Iraq, back in February 2021, praising their work and basically looking forward to working with them for the rest of the project. And Rob was using this as a foot in the door to build three hospitals in Baghdad. And he had even updated the hospital design to be up with code, for free, in preparation, and had started talking to them about that, given that the project was on its final 18 months or 12 months.
 Anyway, everything was going well. And then they started to have a dispute with the client. There were a lot of delays due to COVID with ports and materials arriving. The client had stopped paying invoices for six months and had said that they wanted the extension of time for free. And Robert's employer in Dubai was saying, "No, that's-" you know, it's not a hobby. So, a dispute arose and was ongoing. And Robert and his colleague, Khalid, were invited back by the governor of the Central Bank in a stamped written invitation to resolve the issues. So, they went back to Iraq, they were in Dubai at the head office at the time. [(6:00)] And they were supposed to meet-- they arrived on the first of April and they had an appointment to meet with the governor on the 7th of April and had meetings all morning with Central Bank engineers, had lunch with them. And then at 2 o'clock, at the time that the governor was supposed to meet with them, he walked in, and behind him, 12 security officers, and arrested them. We didn't know where they were for the first few days. We didn't know if they were alive or dead. Just couldn't believe that it had happened. They had met with the governor so many times at the beginning of the project. Four and a half years ago, he was the chief legal advisor for the central bank and not the governor, and so, they had met with him many, many times. So, they completely trusted that that invitation was legitimate. The bottom line on the invitation said, "To resolve the issues and continue with the project."
 They were arrested at 2 o'clock on the 7th, and the very next morning at 8 a.m., this subcontractor arrived on site and took over the project and offered all the remaining employees contracts. So, there was never an intention to resolve the issues, and it was a trap, right from the word go. They were in one facility for the first 12 days, and treated very badly, which is the major component of the UN Arbitrary Detention Working Group report. And Robert lost 15 kilos in 12 days. And then they got changed to another facility, the Egyptian embassy facilitated that, and they've been amazing. They literally saved Robert's life in that first facility. If they hadn't gotten him out, at the same time, they got their own citizen out, he would have died in there. He had a raging kidney and bladder infection. He was blacking out and he was delirious.
 So then they got moved [(8:00)] to where they are now. They sat there for 15-- sorry, five and a half months, waiting for charges, waiting to find out what they were being charged with before court. And they didn't get to see their lawyers until two days before court. The court experience was just the same as you hear with any other arbitrary detention case, where they're convicted on hearsay, not allowed to prove that they're innocent, no evidence that they submitted, proving that they were 100% innocent, was accepted in any court setting. It's just purely hearsay on an unsubstantiated statement from the subcontractor who took over the next day, and they weren't even allowed to ask that it was-- sorry, not even the subcontractor, it was an employee of the subcontractor. And they weren't allowed to bring him in as a witness. They weren't allowed to submit mountains of evidence proving that it was an incorrect statement. Nothing, absolutely nothing. And then, they got sentenced to 5 years, which was the worst sentence in that court, and 12 million fine, basically. Two employees, under the FIDIC contract and under the Iraq Penal Code, it says the employees can't be held accountable. It's just there's no logic to it. There's no humanity. Nothing. You know, so many times, it's been absolutely horrendous ride. It's been a nightmare. Some of the hardest times were telling the kids the next morning after he'd been arrested what had happened because we hadn't heard from him all night, and their faces and trying to explain to them and didn't even know if he was alive. And then, when we thought that when they got to court and they submitted all the evidence [(10:00)] proving they were innocent, that they would be out, and it would all be over, and that logic would prevail and justice. And then he got five years and 12 million U.S. dollars in a fine. And explaining that to the kids as well.
 And then now, since the UN report, calling for their immediate unconditional release, there have been two new court cases raised against them, eight and a half months after their conviction, and just as the UN Arbitrary Detention Working Group calls for their immediate unconditional release. And it’s further fines it’s 20 million U.S. dollars that the Central Bank of Iraq wants to sue two innocent employees for. This Governor, he worked with them on setting up the whole project in the beginning. He knows that they’re employees, he knows that they don't have that kind of money. And it's purely a hostage situation, holding them hostage until they recoup every cent that their employer made in the four and a half years of the project.
 It's really, really hard. I was explaining to somebody the other day. It's like you're in a stormy ocean at night, in a storm, and the waves are huge, just like you see in those videos where they go over the top of the ship or, you know, cover up the lighthouse. And I'm in a floating ring and I've got all these ropes I'm holding onto. One for our son, Flynn. One for our son, Oscar. One for our daughter, Nala. And then there's another rope that's attached to Robert, and we're all in floating rings. And the seas are just so stormy [(12:00)] and we keep getting crashed with waves. And I'm holding on to their ropes and trying to keep them afloat and keep them able to do exams and able to function at school and University. And then there's this long rope that I keep pulling on, trying to get Robert back to us. I'm pulling and pulling on it, and then another wave crashes over us. And then I'm trying to make sure the kids have got their heads above water again, and the ropes have gone again and I'm trying to get it back. And all this pulling that I've done just is unraveled again and I still can't even see him, I've just got this rope that I keep pulling. And yeah, just trying to keep us all from drowning and trying to keep our heads above water. It's just constant, every day. Day in day out. There's no break, and it's just an absolutely horrendous nightmare trying to live it.
 One of the hardest experiences was during the day that the court-- the final day of court and his colleague gave his statement, and then the judge walked away and came back 15 minutes later and sentenced them. And the embassies, the lawyers, and Rob and Khalid, and us, all of us, all the families, we all thought that as soon as they presented the evidence, everything would be okay and it would all be over. It was just, we were waiting all afternoon for the results and Flynn had gone in to the motor registry to get his learner license and he got back in the car and he was so excited to have his license, and then he saw my face, and I just found out about the sentence and the fine and that Robert wouldn't be coming home. And he just knew something had happened. And then, I told him and just watching his face crumble and just [(14:00)] that happiness just slip away. Watching their faces so many different times when I've had to give them bad news, and just photos of them, even Nala, she was eight when he was taken. She's turned nine. And the spark has just gone out of their face. Every time I ask them to smile in a photo for daddy, it's so forced and that spark and that fun has just disappeared out of their eyes.
 Robert and Khalid, they've spent 13 months sitting on the floor, in a 14-foot cell, that's, you know, the equivalent of two and a half, 14-foot shipping containers, and there's nowhere to sit. The beds are all squashed up against the walls during the day. There's no room to exercise. They get out twice a week for up to 20 minutes for exercise, and that's it. And so, he's got lots of issues with muscle deterioration and he's continuing to lose weight. He's getting quite low and, you know, he's dizzy all the time. They spend every day, for the last 13 months, trying to work out how to prove they're innocent and trying to work out how they can get out and get back to us.
 They went to court yesterday regarding the 20 million new case, and yet again, delivered in Arabic, no lawyers present, lawyers blocked from accessing them so that they can discuss the case, and just before Ramadan-- oh, just before Eid. So, their lawyer asked for an extension and they actually got it, which was a big surprise. We pretty much 90% know that once that extension is finished and we get to court, it's going to be pretty much the same as every other time. But we're hoping, we're hopeful [(16:00)] that it will just get thrown out and that there isn't a case. So, at the end of this month, they go back to court.
 Unfortunately, there isn't any financial support now for solicitors and legal fees from his employer, in this regard, with these civil cases. And so, Khalid's family and us are having to split the bill for these new court cases. Solicitor's fees in Iraq are not cheap. So, we're very hopeful that this is all over soon because now, we're looking at having to sell our house and things like that to cover legal fees.
Daren Nair: 

The Pether family are strong. They are resilient. But there is only so much they can do themselves. They need the Australian government to step up and take action. Here's Desree, letting us know what the Australian government needs to do.
Desree Pether: 

I need the Australian government to start taking some big significant action. It's so horrendously hard to see posts going up about millions and millions being spent on aid in Iraq, by Australia. With deals in Australia that Australia has done with Iraq. All of that sort of thing, and still, not enough has been done. I know that they're getting a little bit probably annoyed with me saying that, but it should never have been allowed to get this far. They sat for nearly five and a half months with no charges whatsoever before they even got to court, before this outrageously insane fine against them for 12 million. You know, before all of that, and now again, it's been nearly a month since the UN report came out, [(18:00)] calling for their immediate unconditional release, and still, they're in there. They're still sitting ducks, they're still being subjected to more human rights violations and more judicial violations, and it just keeps going on and on, and it's just getting worse and worse and worse, and they're looking at more time and more fines. It's just completely out of control.
Daren Nair: 

There is a lot going on in the world today, which means people, including governments, have short attention spans. Robert Pether and his family need help from good caring people around the world to keep reminding the Australian government of his wrongful imprisonment in Iraq. The more pressure that is put on the Australian government to secure Robert's release, the more likely it will happen. Here is Desree, letting us know what journalists and the public can do to help.
Desree Pether: 

The journalists, for the most part, 99% of journalists have been really, really supportive and absolutely awesome. They're doing everything they can. Obviously, they can't put it out there every day, but they've been very, very supportive, and I just need that support to continue. The pressure on people who can do something to actually just do it because, you know, Robert, his health is deteriorating, you know, honestly, I feel like we're running out of time and they're just doing not enough. And the public, I just really, really need the story getting out there and the pressure on the people that can do something, and we just need help highlighting the case, spreading the hashtag, #FreeRobertPether. Just constantly getting that news out there and helping us to raise awareness so that we can bring him home.
Daren Nair: 

Desree, we're almost at the end of our interview. Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Desree Pether: 

Anything else I want to [(20:00)] say. Well, he goes to court next week, so it's really, really hard on us. Hard on the boys, they're trying to finish off the school year and their University year with their exams. They struggled last year with their exams because their dad had recently been taken. And very hard on Nala too. I'm trying to keep everyone together and get through this, and trying to get him home is really hard. If everyone could sort of hold him in their thoughts and prayers this coming week, that would be absolutely brilliant. He's sitting on the floor of a cell, a crowded cell with no room to exercise for over a year now, so the muscle deterioration is bad. And he only gets out for up to 20 minutes twice a week. So, standing up in court for hours is really, really hard and excruciating. Then also, he's handcuffed. He's a gentle giant, he's got really big hands and it's very uncomfortable for him. So, if everyone could just keep him in their thoughts, that would be really appreciated.
Daren Nair: 

As we said at the beginning, we'll keep campaigning to free Robert Pether until he is reunited with his family. We thank Desree Pether for taking the time to speak to us, and we thank all of you for listening to Pod Hostage Diplomacy.
 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 are 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'll get back to you.
 If you like what we're trying to do, [(22:00)] please do consider supporting the show financially. You can do this using the ‘Support The Show’ link in the description of this podcast episode. Very grateful for any contributions no matter how small. Thanks again for listening, and we'll be back next week. Take care.