After more than two years spent imprisoned in southern China on spying charges, American Sandy Phan-Gillis finally returned to U.S. soil on Friday, reuniting with her husband and family in Los Angeles. In a few days, they will head home to Houston.
“Sandy is overjoyed to be reunited with friends and family and sends out her thanks to the many people who worked tirelessly for her release,” her husband, Jeff Gillis, said in a statement. “Many of Sandy’s friends and family members have been crying tears of joy throughout the day.”
On April 25, a judge sentenced Phan-Gillis to three and a half years in prison, followed by deportation. Because Phan-Gillis had already served more than half her sentence—during which she was tortured and kept in solitary confinement—Chinese authorities gave her parole and deported her on April 28.
Officials arrested Phan-Gillis during a 2015 trade mission to Shenzhen with then-Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez. For more than a year, the Chinese government would not allow her to speak with a lawyer and did not charge her with a crime, leading the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to rule her detention violated international law. The Chinese government then accused her of going on two spying missions in the southern Chinese city of Nanning in 1996. Jeff Gillis amassed piles of evidence that no such trips occurred.
Although both Phan-Gillis and her husband have consistently maintained her innocence, Phan-Gillis pleaded guilty during last week’s closed-door trial, likely as a part of a deal for her release. The crime of espionage carries a maximum sentence of death.
Human rights activist John Kamm of Dui Hua Foundation, who worked to secure Phan-Gillis’ release, said in a statement negotiations “intensified” during U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Beijing in March. Her release also comes amid warming U.S.-China relations, just three weeks after President Xi Jinping’s visit with President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago Resort in Florida.
The Obama administration also raised the issue with Chinese officials, and Kamm noted that in the past 19 months, he mentioned Phan-Gillis in more than two dozen meetings with Chinese government officials. He also placed her name on many prisoner lists. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., along with Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, all members of the Congressional Executive Commission on China, also pushed for her release.
“For two years, one month, and nine days, Sandy was unjustly separated from her family and detained in China on baseless charges,” Cruz said in a statement. “Today, she is released and free again. This is a day of great celebration for her family and all Texans. I applaud the State Department and thank President Trump for his leadership in securing Sandy’s release.”
— by June Cheng