China has indicted 56-year-old American business consultant Phan “Sandy” Phan-Gillis on charges of spying for a foreign government, with a possible life sentence hanging in the balance. She is a naturalized American citizen of Chinese descent, who arrived in the United States as a refugee from Vietnam.
The Associated Press reports that Phan-Gillis was detained in March 2015 while visiting China as “part of an American trade delegation that was promoting business opportunities in her hometown of Houston, Texas.”
The Nanning Intermediate People’s Court accepted the case against her on July 11 but only recently has her family and legal counsel been informed of the charges. Her first hearing date has not been set yet.
Her husband, Jeff Gillis, says “she is charged with being a spy for a foreign government from 1996 to 1998, and that the charges are ‘absolutely false,'” the AP reported.
On the one-year anniversary of her detention without charges, Newsweek noted Phan-Gillis had previously “been in and out of China dozens of times over the years,” leading “powerful business delegations from her hometown of Houston to Shenzhen, China’s Silicon Valley.”
She disappeared after excusing herself from dinner on the last night of her latest business trip to meet with a friend. At first, she called her husband and friends to tell them her stay in China had been extended, with Mr. Gillis saying his wife’s voice sounded “strained” in the last call.
It was not until weeks after her disappearance that the U.S. Consulate was able to establish that she had been detained by Chinese state security, and it took six months for Chinese authorities to clarify that she was suspected of espionage.
China still has not specified exactly what “state secrets” she allegedly tried to steal, although evidently, they have added charges that she sought to recruit Chinese people living in the United States to work for her espionage operation. Newsweek described her family as reluctant to talk about her case, fearing she could face reprisals from her captors.
The Houston Chronicle cites Jeff Gillis, saying, “his wife’s passport shows that she did not visit China at all in 1996,” when the alleged crime of espionage took place, and she has pay stubs from the Houston Police Department, which employed her as a clerk, showing she took only 11 hours of vacation time during the period in question.
Mr. Gillis speculated that his wife might have corresponded with Chinese officials about plans for the Texas Southern University basketball team to visit Houston’s “sister city” of Shenzhen in 1996, and the Chinese government is basing its allegations on those messages, even though the trip did not actually occur.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Jeff Gills has appealed to President Obama to discuss his wife’s case with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in China this weekend.
“The time really is critical for Sandy, with the imminent meeting between President Obama and Xi Jinping,” Mr. Gills told the Times. “Sandy is absolutely innocent. Chinese officials did not even check their own internal databases to see if Sandy was in the country then. She wasn’t even in China.”
He added that U.S. State Department officials have “aggressively tried to talk to the Chinese about releasing Sandy, including at very high levels,” and American consular officials have visited her once a month since she was detained.
Gillis fears for his wife’s health, noting that she suffers from heart problems, hypertension, and diabetes, and has required two hospital stays since she was detained. He said even a short prison term could put her in mortal peril, noting that “a Chinese prison is not a country club.”
According to the NYT, one of Phan-Gillis’s Chinese defense lawyers, Shang Baojun, said she “initially admitted to some of the allegations against her,” but she told him “she confessed only under compulsion.”
“They put words in my mouth, saying I must follow them in how I said things,” Phan-Gillis reportedly told a U.S. consular officer.