Thursday, 14 July 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla (Atógáil) - Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)
As I rise to raise this issue, Irish resident, Robert Pether is an Iraqi prison. He is in a 14 ft. room with 23 other men. They have cushions and some bunk beds. He gets outside for 20 minutes, three times a week, on the weeks that he does actually get outside. He can speak to his family once a week. His three children and his wife are thousands of miles away. They live in my constituency, in Elphin, in County Roscommon. They miss him desperately.
Robert is a renowned engineer. He has spent much of his working life rebuilding war-torn areas and building hospitals, in particular. That is very much the measure of the man that he is. He was working in Iraq last year as the lead engineer for an engineering company alongside his colleague and deputy, Khalid Radwan, who was also detained. The company Robert was working for as an employee had a contract dispute with the Central Bank of Iraq, whose headquarters they were there to rebuild. These headquarters were seen as critical infrastructure to rebuilding Iraq. On 1 April 2021 Robert returned to Baghdad to try to assist in ending the dispute. During a meeting the Iraqi police entered and he was arrested. On 25 August 2021, Robert was sentenced to five years' imprisonment and issued with a fine of $12 million. On 16 March 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Council published a report on the case. It concluded that the deprivation of liberty of Robert and Khalid, being in contravention of Articles 2, 7, 9, 10, 11, 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 2, 9, 10, 11, 14 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is arbitrary and falls within categories I, III and V. The working group called on the Government of Iraq to take urgent action to ensure the immediate and unconditional release of both men. The report went on to raise serious questions in relation to the trial proceedings, which I will not get into here. The working group raised concerns around the conduct of the trial, and noted with grave concern that during the trial, the men did not have clarity around their charges. The working group also discussed collusion in its report.
Robert is not an Irish citizen, albeit his wife and three children are. He is Australian. We understand that the Government is limited in what it can do and cannot, for example, provide consular assistance. However, I want to take this opportunity before the Dáil rises to plead with the Irish Government to do anything it can do, engage with anyone it can and raise the case anywhere it can. I understand that the Minister for Foreign Affairs is limited in what he can do. However, I acknowledge that he has done what he can to date in relation to raising this issue. He needs to continue to do that. When I first met Robert's wife, the most mesmerising thing about the case and the thing I could not understand was that even if the company did something wrong, why would an employee be held to account for it? It makes no sense. Robert has now been in prison for over 14 months. His health is deteriorating rapidly. His two sons, his daughter and his wife are at home in Ireland. In fact, they moved to Elphin because they bought the old convent and were doing it up to create a wellness centre for women recovering from an illness that Robert's wife, Desree, has herself. That is the measure of the family we are talking about. That is what they were doing in my constituency. Robert is now in an Iraqi prison and has been on his own for the past 14 months. I urge the Government to do more, to do anything in the world it can, to try to bring this absolutely horrendous and horrific situation to an end and to bring Robert home to his family.
I thank Deputy Kerrane for raising this most important issue. I want to extend our best wishes to Robert and his family. What the Deputy has described is a hugely challenging situation. It is desperate for any family to have to face that. I am aware of the case of Robert Pether, who has been detained in Iraq for over a year along with his Egyptian colleague, Mr. Khalid Radwan. Mr. Pether is an Australian engineer, and was working in Baghdad on a project to construct a new headquarters for the Central Bank of Iraq. He was arrested in April 2021, and in August 2021, was sentenced to five years' imprisonment and issued with a fine of $12 million. Mr. Pether is an Australian national, but his wife and children live here in Ireland. Mr. Pether's imprisonment has understandably been a huge source of distress for his family. The Department of Foreign Affairs has taken an active interest in this case. The Minister has discussed the case with Ms Pether, and officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs have been in regular contact with Robert's wife.
We note, with deep concern, the conclusions made by the UN working group on arbitrary detention on this case, and urge the Iraqi authorities to engage urgently and constructively with the working group on the issues raised. Mr. Pether is an Australian national, and the Australian Government is the appropriate consular authority in this case. In February, the Minister for Foreign Affairs discussed the case with the then Australian Foreign Minister, Ms Marise Payne. Ms Payne detailed the extensive consular support being provided by the Australian Government. Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs have also been in contact with the Australian Embassy in Iraq and the Australian Embassy in Dublin to express concern about Mr. Pether, and the impact that this case was having on his Irish-resident family. As the Deputy will understand, it would not be appropriate to comment in detail on an ongoing consular case of an international partner. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has also raised concerns over the case of Mr. Pether directly with the Iraqi authorities. While he has made clear that Australia is the appropriate consular authority, he noted that Mr. Pether's family are based in Ireland, and highlighted the distress which this case is causing to them. Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs will continue to follow this case very closely and will keep in close contact with the family of Mr. Pether, with the relevant Australian authorities and with the Iraqi authorities as appropriate.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is important that he made reference to the fact that Mr. Pether's wife and children are living here and they are, indeed, Irish citizens. All four members of the family are Irish citizens and while we and the family understand that consular assistance has to come from Australia, we too have a part to play. I acknowledge what has been done to date but I take the opportunity today, as the Dáil rises, to raise this case. I have been in touch with the Minister for Foreign Affairs previously in respect of this case and I understand that he has done what he can to date. The Minister of State mentioned that the Minister has raised concerns about the case directly with the Iraqi authorities. When did the most recent engagement happen? If this information is not available, perhaps he might ask the Minister to come back to me with it.
In recent weeks the new Prime Minister of Australia has spoken out on this case and has also spoken to Iraqi authorities on the case. That is welcome given that he is a newly elected prime minister. It is important now that Australia picks this up and brings it to the next level, particularly given as I have said, that Mr. Pether's health is deteriorating rapidly. The family are gravely concerned for his welfare and health. I ask that Ireland and Australia come together to do what we can because, at the end of the day, his family are suffering more than anyone in this world in this case and they are Irish citizens. They are our citizens and I believe that we can do more together with Australia to put the pressure on, particularly on the back of that UN report that is so grave in respect of its findings and conclusions. It believes and has concluded that both men should be immediately released. There is scope now on the back of that to go back and raise this issue again.
Gabhaim buíochas arís. As the Deputy said, this is a challenging and concerning case and I thank her for raising it. It is significant that she has raised it here in our Parliament and that is important to maintain that pressure.
The Department of Foreign Affairs will continue to closely monitor the case of Mr. Pether and his Egyptian colleague, Mr. Khalid Radwan. We understand the significant distress this case is causing from Mr. Pether's family here in Ireland. Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs will continue to remain in regular contact with Mr. Pether. I do not have with me a date as to when the issue was most recently raised with the Iraqi authorities but I will ask the Minister to revert with a response on that.
The Australian Government is continuing to provide high-level consular assistance to Mr. Pether. As the Deputy will understand, it would not be appropriate to comment on the details of the case or on the consular assistance provided. I assure her, however, that officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs will continue to remain in close contact with the relevant Australian officials and will continue to advocate for Mr. Pether and his family. We will also, as appropriate, continue to raise concerns over Mr. Pether with Iraqi authorities. It is our sincere hope that officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs will continue to follow this case closely and that a satisfactory outcome can be found in this case, above all, for the sake of Mr. Pether and his family.