Shanghai police have demanded a $36m (€30m) 'corporate ransom' from Irish executive Richard O'Halloran to allow him to return home.
O'Halloran has been barred from leaving China for almost two years after being caught up in a legal row involving the Chinese shareholder of a Dublin aviation-leasing firm he works for.
The Foxrock father-of-four was told by police during an interrogation three weeks ago that his exit ban had been lifted. But O'Halloran, who has never been charged with any wrongdoing by the Chinese, was then denied boarding at Shanghai airport after booking a flight home.
Chinese authorities have denied four requests from the Irish embassy to have representatives attend as observers at O'Halloran's court hearings and police interrogations, most recently last Tuesday.
"It is fundamentally wrong on many levels," said David Maughan, partner with law firm William Fry, which acts for O'Halloran. The acting directors of the Dublin firm, CALS, of which O'Halloran is also a director, sent $200,000 (€165,000) to the Chinese court in a good-faith gesture as part of a proposal to the Chinese to allow the Irishman return home. O'Halloran was subsequently subjected to a six-hour interrogation by Chinese police, without a lawyer, as to the source of the money.
"It was a phenomenally scary piece of interrogation. During it they demanded he pay $6m personally to the court in order to assist with his freedom," said Maughan.
The authorities subsequently requested that O'Halloran personally repatriate $36m to China, it is understood. During the interrogation the police also revealed that the exit ban placed on him had been lifted.
"This was the first he'd been told of this. Richard immediately booked a flight to come home that evening, January 10. But when he went to the airport he was denied access to board the aircraft with no legal grounds whatsoever," said Maughan.
O'Halloran was previously denied boarding at the airport almost two years ago and has been in China ever since.
He is medically vulnerable with a serious lung condition. He has suffered life-threatening ill-health problems in China and was admitted to hospital over Christmas for a second time "due to stress-related issues and other consequences of his detention".
Two days later he was summoned to appear before Judge Liu who had heard the appeal case of CALS chairman Min Jiedong in which O’Halloran had acted as a witness.
“She confirmed that there was no exit ban in place but told him that he would be in China for ‘a very, very long time’. Richard now fears that the judge intends to force him to remain in the country to manage the sale of an aircraft in five years’ time when its lease runs out,” said Maughan.
The Chinese authorities were acting in contravention of his basic legal rights by demanding cash in return for allowing him to leave, said Maughan.
“I wrote to the Chinese ambassador and to Minister Coveney offering a number of solutions. Unfortunately, neither the ambassador nor the Minister have engaged with us on those solutions, which is very demoralising for Richard.”
One proposed solution would involve a commitment to pay the Chinese a significant amount of money each month to repay investors that the court found were defrauded by Min Jiedong in a crowdfunding scheme by finance companies he operated in China. O’Halloran would return home but commit to work for CALS to manage the five remaining years of a lease to Finnair of an Airbus A330 by CALS. The Chinese authorities have previously requested that the aircraft be flown to China and sold.
O’Halloran, who has a long, unblemished track record in the Dublin aviation leasing industry, was hired by CALS after that lease was already in place. He volunteered as a director to travel to Shanghai in March 2019 on behalf of CALS to try to resolve matters for the company after Min was arrested.
When he attempted to board his return flight after a week of meetings he was detained and has been denied permission to leave the country ever since.
Asked to comment, the Department of Foreign Affairs responded with the following statement after the print version of this story had gone to press:
“The Department of Foreign Affairs attaches the utmost importance to Mr O'Halloran's welfare, and continues to provide all possible consular support and assistance.
Minister Coveney remains actively and personally engaged and our senior officials in Dublin, Beijing and Shanghai continue to do everything possible to ensure that Mr O'Halloran can return home. Consular officials are in ongoing contact with Mr O’Halloran’s family and advisers in Ireland.
As with all consular cases, it would not be appropriate to comment on the details of this case.”