Houston Chronicle: Houston woman says Chinese forced her to confess

Houston Chronicle

August 26, 2016

■ Woman facing spy charges says authorities forced her to confess

Houston businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis, center, seen with her husband Jeff Gillis, right, has been detained by the Chinese government for allegedly being a spy and stealing state secrets. Her husband Jeff Gillis said he is publicizing her ordeal to coincide with the U.S. visit this week of China’s President Xi Jinping in hopes of placing pressure on U.S. and Chinese authorities to secure her release.

A Houston businesswoman whom Chinese authorities charged with spying last month after detaining her for more than a year was coerced into a confession and has been hospitalized twice after prolonged interrogation she described as “mental torture,” her husband said Friday.

The new details come after he said Sandy Phan-Gillis met with U.S. consular officials without Chinese state security agents for the first time last month and following an August meeting with her newly appointed legal team, Mo Shaoping, a leading human rights law firm in China.

The lawyers told Jeff Gillis that his wife said she felt forced to admit to wrongdoing but that the confession was “faked.” It’s not clear exactly what she admitted. Her lawyers have been able to see her indictment but not a longer explanation of the allegations in her case file, her husband said.

She also told lawyers and consular officials that she was interrogated daily during six months of so-called residential surveillance, a controversial practice allowing Chinese authorities to hold suspects without charges while they investigate national security breaches. The questioning was harsh and terrified her so much that at one point she even fainted and had a heart attack, causing her to be hospitalized twice.

Houston businesswoman Sand Phan-Gillis, center, seen with
her husband Jeff Gillis, right, has been detained by the
Chinese government for allegedly being a spy with the U.S.
visit this week of China’s President Xi Jinping in hopes of
placing pressure on U.S. and Chinese authorities to secure her
release. Photo: Courtesy Of Jeff Gillis

The revelations, including that Phan-Gillis wanted to kill herself three times and said she agreed with her interrogators only because they threatened her with life imprisonment, meets the United Nations’ definition of torture, her husband said.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Espionage alleged

Liu Bo, an official with China’s Consulate in Houston, said in a statement that Phan-Gillis is suspected of stealing and spying on China’s national secrets and that during her arrest “a new crime of espionage” was uncovered. He provided no details but said she is in good health.

“Her lawful rights are properly protected,” he said in an email. “The Chinese side will continue to deal with her case according to the law of China.”

John Kamm, a human rights activist in China and director of the Dui Hua Foundation in San Francisco, said Phan-Gillis’ case qualifies as torture. He said the U.N. has specifically condemned China’s practice of placing suspects under residential surveillance in a designated location, as it did for six months with Phan-Gillis, comparing it to an enforced or involuntary disappearance.

Until China overhauled its regulations last October to curtail abuse at such centers, they were not subject to much oversight, and few details existed about their conditions.

“You are at their complete disposal for six months with no access to a lawyer. During that period, (Phan-Gillis) was interrogated at least once a day, sometimes more,” Kamm said. “In that kind of atmosphere I am confident that meets the U.N.’s definition of torture: Solitary confinement, enforced disappearance, no access to a lawyer.”

Jeff Gillis said his wife’s latest comments pushed him to speak publicly about the case for the first time since last September. Her arrest had been kept secret until he brought it to national attention last year to coincide with the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to Washington.

“The fact that the Chinese government still refuses to discuss the case leaves me without much feeling of hope, that they did issue a formal indictment leaves me without much hope, and also the fact that Sandy is finally able to speak out about her treatment in captivity makes me feel like I really need to take the case to the American people,” said Gillis, an oil and gas services manager at Schlumberger in Houston.

Plea to Obama

President Barack Obama will meet with Xi during the G20 summit, starting Sept. 4 in China, and Gillis released a plea for help he said his wife had dictated to consular officials.

“I hope you can help me by negotiating with Chinese President Xi Jinping for my release when you meet with him at the upcoming G20 meeting,” Phan-Gillis said in the letter. “I am accused of being a spy for the U.S. government. I have never been a spy.”

The case has sparked widespread condemnation from Congress and the United Nations and has been called a “red flag” for Americans working in China because many considered Phan-Gillis a “poster child for good U.S.-China relations.”

A 56-year-old Vietnamese refugee of Chinese descent who became a U.S. citizen decades ago, Phan-Gillis was leading a trade delegation including Houston’s former mayor pro-tem, Ed Gonzalez, when she was detained in March 2015. She was passing through an immigration control connecting mainland China with Macau. She was held for six months under residential surveillance, then moved in September to a formal detention center in Nanning, Guangxi, a province bordering Vietnam. In July, she was charged with spying in the Nanning Intermediate People’s Court.

Gillis revealed her arrest when he unveiled the brief media campaign last September.

But within days, he abruptly shut it down, saying it was best to leave negotiations to the State Department.

On Friday, however, he said his wife had called him on Sept. 24 and in a frightening 16-minute phone call pleaded with him to stop the publicity, saying she was afraid of what may happen if he continued.

“I know you’re scared about my safety and my health, but I don’t want to lose my medicine, my doctor and my consul visits,” she told him. “I don’t want that taken away from me. Please tell them you will stop so that they can hear you agree.”

That was the only time he has spoken to her since her arrest.

“This is very, very difficult,” he said. “It is crazy-making, I would say that. This is not something I would wish on anyone.”

Monthly meetings

The State Department has said consular officials meet with Phan-Gillis every month and are monitoring the case closely. Senior officials in Washington have raised it several times with their counterparts in Beijing.

In July a United Nations panel said China has arbitrarily detained Phan-Gillis in violation of international human rights norms. The U.N. working group said that the Chinese government told it that Phan-Gillis is charged with “assisting external parties to steal national intelligence.” The panel called for her to be released or given proper assistance by a legal counsel.

What makes her case especially puzzling to those who know her best is that Phan-Gillis has worked for decades to improve U.S.-China’s relations. She helped lead and later served as president of the Houston Shenzhen Sister City Association since 1994 and founded Houston’s Chinese New Year festival. She coordinated training programs for Chinese nurses in Houston.

“To me it flies in the face of reason,” said Kamm, who has helped more than 400 political and religious prisoners in China.

U.S. analysts say her case raises questions about the safety of Americans doing business in China under Xi, who has arrested at least nine foreigners on allegations of spying in the past two years and oversaw the passage of a sweeping national security law last summer that grants authorities broad discretion about what constitutes espionage.

It was approved as Chinese authorities have increasingly blamed “foreign forces” for protests in Hong Kong and elsewhere and as the government has launched a massive anti-corruption crackdown that has also focused on dissidents.

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