Family of Irish man held in China: ‘Nobody is helping us – we are just begging for help’

His family stayed silent for 18 months while Richard O’Halloran was held in China. Now they are speaking out

Tara O’Halloran with children  Scarlett (6) Ben (13), Isabella (8) and Amber (11). Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Tara O’Halloran with children Scarlett (6) Ben (13), Isabella (8) and Amber (11). Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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The wife of an Irish businessman who has effectively been trapped in China for the past two years, says she is begging for help to get him out, adding that her children were “riddled with anxiety”.

Richard O’Halloran (45), a father of four from Foxrock in Dublin, was prevented from leaving China in February 2019 after the company he worked for fell afoul of the Chinese authorities, though no allegation has ever been levelled against him.

Now his wife, Tara O’Halloran, and the couple’s four children – Ben (13), Amber (11), Isabella (9) and Scarlett (7) – are facing into their second Christmas without him.

“Lockdown was very rough – the children were going through an awful lot. They are amazing kids but it has been very difficult for them,” says Ms O’Halloran.

“They find it hard to understand, they are very fearful and riddled with anxiety and clinging to me. They can’t understand how Richard was taken from their lives, just removed.”

She is concerned about the impact on Mr O’Halloran’s mental health and is worried that he appears to have “given up hope of ever getting home”.

“He can see there’s nothing happening, though we are trying to get him home and we have explained all of the things we are doing.”

The Irish Government’s consular staff were helping him and meeting with him in Shanghai, where he has been staying in an apartment. The efforts of the Irish officials have been appreciated, she says.

Last week, Mrs O’Halloran said her mood jumped when she learned Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was to speak to his Chinese counterpart, believing that the call would be about resolving her husband’s situation.

However, she says no further information had emerged during the call.

“Richard’s name came up during the conversation but the Minister didn’t press him for any details and it appears he got no information about the situation. I was pinning all my hopes on that call as I was led to understand this would be a huge break in the case.

Richard O’Halloran.

Significant

However, Mr Coveney’s office later told The Irish Times the call was a significant one and had involved several important issues.

“The case of Mr O’Halloran featured prominently in this discussion, which is the latest in a series of engagements with the Chinese authorities, both by the Minister personally and by officials over the past several months,” the spokesman said.

“This is an extremely complicated consular case. The Minister remains actively and personally engaged and the consular teams in Dublin, Beijing and Shanghai have Mr O’Halloran’s welfare above any other consideration. They are doing everything they can to resolve the case and bring him home to his family.”

Mr O’Halloran was stopped from leaving China over an investigation into Chinese businessman Min Jiedong, the owner of the Irishman’s employers, the Dublin-based China International Aviation Leasing Service.

The authorities accused Mr Min of illegally collecting money from Chinese investors in a crowd-funding scheme and using it to buy an aircraft, currently leased to an airline in Europe. He has gone on trial and been jailed.

However, Mr O’Halloran joined the company a year after the events under investigation took place. He travelled to China in February 2019 to meet investors and assess the problems facing the firm. After a week of meetings in Shanghai, he was detained at passport control at the airport as he tried to board his flight back to Dublin. He was later issued with an exit ban.

Testified

The Irish businessman, a relative of the late Fine Gael taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, testified as a witness four times in the prosecution of Mr Min. However, he has not been permitted to leave China, despite both the prosecutor and Mr Min telling the court he should be.

Initially he lived in a hotel room but since then he has transferred to an apartment in a bid to reduce the cost of his forced stay in China.

At home in Ireland, his wife has endured the Covid-19 pandemic, including lockdown and periods of home schooling her four children, without her husband.

The Chinese authorities claim that Mr O’Halloran promised to transfer the aircraft and leasing revenues connected to the plane back to the Irish company’s Chinese parent, but that he has not done so.

However, Ms O’Halloran says her husband does not have the power to do what the Chinese authorities have asked, as while he managed the leasing of the aircraft, the aircraft is not his property to give to the Chinese.

Ms O’Halloran said her husband was also told to resign, which he did, as a condition of being allowed to return home and has also complied with other conditions he was asked to satisfy. Nothing, however, has helped to improve his situation, or bring his return to Ireland closer.

Letter of resignation

He handed in his letter of resignation from his position as the company’s chief operating officer, as demanded, and supplied company bank details “but they wouldn’t accept it”, his wife says.

“But they had changed their mind about what they want from him. We literally don’t know what they want at this point. We have no guarantee they were going to let him go home.

“We don’t have any point of contact in China and Richard has never been given anything in writing. This is why I am reaching out to the Government here – if they don’t negotiate we are never going to get him home.”

Ms O’Halloran also says her husband’s physical wellbeing has deteriorated along with his mental health

– he suffered a seizure in his apartment building and was found by a maid.

“He was taken to hospital and had another seizure and his heart stopped, so he was clinically dead for a period,” she says. “I don’t understand what good he is to them over there. We are terrified. Nobody is helping us and we are at the point where we are just begging for help.”

Other people in Ireland’s aviation industry, including those who spend time in China, have helped, telling her they were shocked at what had happened to him and that Mr O’Halloran had become “a commercial hostage”.

Her husband’s family are deeply concerned about him, too: “They are heartbroken and they are a wonderful family. It’s torture for us to see him deteriorate. One of my own children doesn’t sleep, she is so concerned.

Frustrated

The family is very frustrated, too, that they have no Chinese official to liaise with and that it is not clear what they could do, or what Mr O’Halloran could do, to give the Chinese what they want so that they will reverse the exit ban.

“The kids are absolutely heartbroken to be still without their dad and distraught at the idea another Christmas apart from him.”

She and her husband had decided last year, and into this year, not to speak publicly about his detention, she says. Then they felt the best thing to do was to allow the Government time to speak with the Chinese authorities to negotiate his return. Now, however, the situation has dragged on for so long they believe they must speak out.

“It beggars belief he could be just be left there,” Ms O’Halloran says . “We can’t go any further with this but the Irish Government could and they need to demand that he be released. [The Chinese] are just using him as leverage and we are so worried.”