After two years of discreet silence about his detention without charges in China, Irish businessman Richard O'Halloran finally spoke up this month.
His youngest child was only 5 years old when he traveled to Shanghai in February 2019 on what he expected to be a short business trip, O'Halloran said in an interview with Irish public broadcaster RTE.
Speaking from his hotel room which he describes as a virtual prison, O'Halloran said he found it very difficult to explain to the now 7-year-old "that daddy is not coming home, for your birthday, for your communion, for your confirmation, for Christmas."
O'Halloran's case is a showcase example of behavior that is to be targeted by a newly created 58-nation coalition launched last week to address state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for political purposes.
The coalition was established with a virtual conference hosted by Canada, which has itself been working for more than two years to secure the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, both of whom were detained in China in apparent retaliation for the arrest in Canada of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
While the case of the "two Michaels" has been widely publicized, O'Halloran's ordeal was little known until he went public this past week.
In the interview, the 45-year-old father of four said his anguish had reached the point that he asked the Chinese judge in charge of his case: "Do you expect that I tell my wife to get on with her life, and for my kids to try and forget about me? Is that what you're trying to do?"
O'Halloran, an executive with the Irish subsidiary of an aviation leasing company, traveled to China to help settle a commercial dispute that resulted in the arrest of his employer on charges of defrauding Chinese investors of some $70 million.
While not charged with any crime, O'Halloran has been told he cannot leave China until the money is returned to the investors.
The Chinese embassy in Dublin told RTE: "In any country, company representatives have the legal obligation to return the proceeds of crime flowing into the company and related yields to the victims."
The embassy added, "We fully understand Mr. O'Halloran's family's anxiety and hope they will advise Mr. O'Halloran to cooperate in a meaningful way with judicial authorities in Shanghai to ensure an early solution to the case."
But O'Halloran argued in his interview that the Chinese legal system is "fundamentally flawed."
"To expect somebody to sign documents in Chinese, to conduct an entire interview in Chinese, without legal representation, is just not correct in my view," he said.
The case has attracted the attention of some major China policy experts, including Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China and assistant secretary of state for East Asia.
"I've been following the case closely for many months, it's a very sad, frustrating and cruel case," Lord said in a phone interview from his home in Manhattan.
"This man is a businessman from Ireland, he went to the mainland to try to help the Chinese resolve a case against another Chinese, and he's been kept in detention — not house arrest, but he can't leave the country — for two years."
Lord said China may be hurting its own economic interests by holding O'Halloran. "I already know people who don't want to be stationed in China, whether it's pollution, repression, or extreme measures like this," he said.
The detention has also been denounced on the floor of the Irish parliament, where Senator Michael McDowell insisted that "no Chinese citizen would be treated in this way in this country."
"Comparative size of our two countries doesn't justify wolf diplomacy being deployed against Ireland to try and blackmail this man into doing something unlawful," he said.
McDowell cautioned the Irish government against falling into what he called the three stages of inaction — "the stage which was premature to do anything, the stage which was too sensitive, and the stage which was too late."