Secret cables reveal Qantas duo's ordeal

Secret diplomatic cables about the plight of two Qantas executives banned from leaving Vietnam several years ago show how the bureaucracy sought to manage public perceptions.

Secret diplomatic cables about the plight of two Qantas executives banned from leaving Vietnam several years ago show how the bureaucracy sought to manage public perceptions.

The documents stamped "consular media talking points" also reveal that Qantas was "keen to manage media interest downwards" about its two top-ranked executives on their return to Australia.

Tristan Freeman and Daniela Marsilli were kept in Vietnam for six months in 2010 while the secret police investigated losses at Jetstar Pacific. Qantas has a 30 per cent stake in the Vietnamese budget airline.

The cables about the highly sensitive case reveal that Vietnam's feared secret police "conducted a series of interviews separately" with Mr Freeman in the capital, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City. The Ministry of Public Security also interviewed Ms Marsilli in late December 2009.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been forced by the Information Commissioner to release detailed information it once deemed "irrelevant" to Fairfax Media. The cables were originally obtained by this newspaper under freedom-of-information laws in late 2010 but were heavily censored.

The newly released documents show that most important for the department were questions it was likely to face from the media about whether Qantas had to reach a deal to free its two executives.

Diplomats were prepared for questions such as whether Qantas had to "provide any commercial concessions to allow this outcome".

The response was to be: "The Australian government has focused on the consular welfare of the two Australians and is pleased that the two are now on their way to Australia. Qantas and its Vietnamese partner, the State Capital Investment Commission (SCIC), are maintaining their investment in the airline and have issued a statement to that effect."

This newspaper previously has revealed that the two executives were freed after the airline agreed to a secret "commercial package" with the SCIC, the investment arm of Vietnam's government. The deal was reached just days before the pair were freed in June 2010.

Six months earlier, the two executives were stopped from returning to Australia for Christmas.

Immigration officials confiscated the passport of Mr Freeman, then the chief financial officer of Jetstar Pacific. It was returned with formal advice he could not leave Vietnam.

He was told that Vietnamese police wanted to interview him about Jetstar Pacific's operations.

Ms Marsilli, then Jetstar Pacific's chief operating officer, was scheduled to leave the same day - December 19, 2009. But the cables show she decided "not to attempt to leave after receiving advice that Vietnamese authorities also wanted to interview her".

The pair were targeted as part of a "formal investigation" after Jetstar Pacific lost $31 million in a fuel-hedging contract. Under Vietnamese law, the loss incurred by the SCIC - the majority shareholder in the Jetstar Pacific joint venture with Qantas - had to be investigated.

Qantas said on Friday the two executives had been "through a lot, so for obvious reasons we were keen to protect their privacy when they returned to Australia".

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