China has brought formal espionage charges against an American woman who has been held in the country for over a year under allegations that she was working as a spy for the United States. The filing of espionage charges could have negative effects on the relationship between the United States and China, as it occurs just prior to a planned trip to the country by President Obama.
Houston resident Sandy Phan-Gillis was born to Chinese parents in Vietnam and later relocated to the U.S. According to The Washington Post, she was working as a business consultant at the time of her arrest for espionage. The 56-year-old was in southern China with a trade delegation promoting doing business in Houston when she was arrested pending espionage charges in March 2015. If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
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The espionage charges against Phan-Gillis were announced during a Tuesday news conference. Although she did not elaborate or give details on the charges themselves, The Washington Posts reports that spokesperson Hua Chunying of China’s Foreign Ministry said the following.
“Based on our understanding, Phan-Gillis, because of suspected espionage, has been charged according to law by the relevant Chinese department. China is a country ruled by law. The relevant Chinese department will handle the case strictly according to law.”
Worth noting is the expansive reach of Chinese laws against espionage, which rule over all manners of information, including, says DailyMail, the birth dates of Chinese leaders. The law also permits information to be classified as a state secret after it has been accessed.
Phan-Gillis responded to the espionage charges in a letter dictated to an official with the U.S. Embassy. The letter was then made public by Jeff Gillis, her husband.
“I am accused of being a spy for the U.S. government. I have never been a spy.”
China may not have released details on the espionage charges it has filed against Phan-Gillis, but, according to The Washington Post, Gillis says China alleges his wife was a spy working for a foreign government between 1996 and 1998.
A Facebook page has been created in Phan-Gillis’ name to gather support and to call upon the Chinese government for her release.
According to DailyMail, the Nanning Intermediate People’s Court, located in southern China, accepted the espionage charges against Phan-Gillis in July. A court date has not been scheduled.
Gillis defended his wife against the espionage charges, saying the allegations were “false.” DailyMail published a quote by Gillis.
“Sandy is not a spy or a thief. She is a hard-working businesswoman who spends huge amounts of time on non-profit activities that benefit Houston/China relations. Sandy has been a good friend to China for decades.”
He has also voiced concern that his wife is not being properly cared for and is not safe while in the custody of the Chinese government pending espionage charges. Phan-Gillis was held under house arrest for six months before her transfer to a prison and before charges were filed. DailyMail reports that Gillis also claims his wife has been tortured while awaiting the filing of the espionage charges.
His worries are not without merit, according to a U.N. committee in July. The Washington Posts reports the panel, which focuses on arbitrary detention, found that Phan-Gillis’ rights were violated by China, who held her without cause before the espionage charges were filed and did not allow her free access to her attorneys.
In light of the findings of the U.N. committee, John Kirby, spokesman for the State Department, said the following on July 6.
“We’re certainly concerned about her welfare and her lengthy detention without trial, and we urge China to resolve this case expeditiously and to ensure that Ms. Phan-Gillis continues to have full access to an attorney. Senior U.S. government officials have raised her case with senior Chinese government officials on multiple occasions, and I can assure you we’ll continue to do so.”
Obama is scheduled to visit Hangzhou, China, for multiple meetings of the Group of 20. The espionage charges filed against Phan-Gillis will add to the tension between China and the United States that already exists due to the belief that Chinese hackers have targeted U.S. businesses and government agencies. In addition, according to The Washington Post, allegations of espionage and claims to the South China Sea are also affecting U.S./China relations.
China is not the only nation on guard against espionage. A Chinese national was sentenced in July to almost four years in a U.S. prison after being found guilty of charges of conspiracy to steal military secrets by hacking into defense contractor servers. China denounced the sentencing on espionage charges as having been driven by “ulterior motives.”
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