A former comrade of Finbar Cafferkey, the Irish man killed fighting in Ukraine, was arrested by UK counterterrorism police last month as he attempted to travel to Ireland to deliver the news of the Mayo man’s death.
Philip O’Keeffe, an Irish citizen who fought with Mr Cafferkey against the Islamic State in Syria while they were both members of the Kurdish YPG, is facing prosecution under contentious antiterrorism legislation after being stopped by the Metropolitan Police while travelling through Heathrow Airport in London on April 22nd.
Mr O’Keeffe was in Brussels when he heard Mr Cafferkey had been killed while battling Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Cafferkey’s colleagues were eager that his family hear the news from a friend before they read about it in the media and it was decided Mr O’Keeffe would travel to the family home in Cashel, Achill to inform Mr Cafferkey’s parents of the news and help them liaise with their son’s unit on the ground while his remains were recovered.
Mr O’Keeffe, who holds dual Irish and American citizenship, arrived in Heathrow Airport on the evening of April 22nd, intending to immediately board a connecting flight to Dublin. However, on exiting the plane, several police officers brought him away and confiscated his travel documents and electronic devices.
Mr O’Keeffe was detained for about six hours under section 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, a wide-ranging piece of legislation that allows police to question travellers for up to six hours without cause to determine if they may be a terrorist.
Under the Act, detainees have no right to silence and are obliged to answer questions. They are also obliged to hand over any passwords for their electronic devices.
Mr O’Keeffe refused to hand over the passwords to his devices, leading police to accuse him of obstructing justice and to extend his detention overnight. He was later released on bail in advance of a hearing in London next week where he will learn if he will be prosecuted.
The Metropolitan Police retained possession of Mr O’Keeffe’s phone and other devices, meaning he could not contact the Cafferkey family on his release. They learned of their son’s death through other means.
It is understood Mr O’Keeffe has sought assistance from the Irish and American embassies in London.
As well as being involved in the Kurdish YPG with Mr Cafferkey, Mr O’Keeffe has been involved in other left-wing and environmental groups.
Mr O’Keeffe’s solicitor, Alistair Lyon, said his client was questioned during his initial detention without any legal representation present as police said they could not locate a lawyer.
“They have to give you a lawyer, or at the very least let you talk to one on the phone so you can be told ‘yes, you really do have to answer questions or you’ll be arrested’,” Mr Lyon said. “It is extraordinary that they would contemplate a prosecution of someone where they can’t provide the most basic right in what is an absolute outlier of a legal situation.”
Section 7 has been the subject of repeated criticism, particularly for its use against left-wing activists.
Last month, the Metropolitan Police used the law to stop a French publisher, Ernest Moret, as he arrived in London before detaining him when he refused to hand over his passwords. Mr Moret’s employers said he was stopped because he was allegedly involved in the French pension age protests.