For the past two years, Texan Sandy Phan-Gillis, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has endured physical and mental torture, solitary confinement, and imprisonment without trial in Nanning, China, for unsubstantiated spying charges. Despite media campaigns and help from the U.S. State Department in raising the issue with Chinese officials, Phan-Gillis remains in captivity, and the Chinese government has not suffered any consequences for taking her hostage.
Last week, her husband Jeff Gillis testified in front of the Congressional-Executive Committee on China (CECC), calling on the U.S. government to ban entry to Chinese officials engaged in torture, support a resolution calling for his wife’s release, and halt the return of Chinese economic fugitives until Phan-Gillis comes home.
“I’m horrified by the way she is treated,” Gillis said. “I am disappointed there has not been more support for getting her out.”
In March 2015, Phan-Gillis accompanied Houston Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gonzalez on a trade mission to Shenzhen, China. When the group crossed the border to Macao, Chinese border patrol agents detained her. The rest of the group later received a strange phone call from Phan-Gillis telling them to go ahead while she stayed in China for personal reasons. Gillis received a similar call and thought his wife had decided to visit friends.
But when Gillis didn’t hear from her for a few days, he filed a missing person report with the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou. Within 20 minutes consulate officials returned the call, saying they thought he knew: China’s Ministry of State Security (the country’s spy agency) had detained Phan-Gillis on allegations she was an American spy working with the FBI.
The news left Gillis in complete shock.
“The whole thing would be laughable, if the consequences for Sandy were not so horrific,” he said.
Phan-Gillis, who is ethnically Chinese but has never held Chinese citizenship, had no connection with FBI. Instead, she worked on improving U.S.-Chinese relations in Houston, where she lived. She founded Houston’s Chinese New Year Festival, served as president of the Houston Shenzhen Sister City Association, hosted Chinese dignitaries, and accompanied American officials on trips to China. Through her 30 trips to Shenzhen, Phan-Gillis interacted with local officials and often worked with Chinese consulate staff in Houston.
Once Gillis learned about her detention, he reached out to his wife’s Chinese contacts and friends. They all ignored him or refused to help. One person who did agree to speak with him said that although they didn’t think Phan-Gillis was a spy, they couldn’t help her because she was taken by the powerful State Security agency, which often works outside the law.
“Every single organization Sandy worked with was terrified,” Gillis said. “They were much more afraid of what might happen to them if they admitted they were involved with Sandy, than they were of what might happen to Sandy if they stayed silent.”
For six months, State Security agents held Phan-Gillis in a designated-location, residential surveillance facility, often referred to as a “black jail.” Because of its secretive nature, interrogators get away with torturing prisoners and keeping them from any contact with the outside world. Human rights activists and other “enemies of the state” often end up in these black jails, but Gillis believes his wife may be the first American the Chinese government has ever sent there.
The brutal interrogation, which included torture tactics such as forcing her to sit for hours on a small stool with raised teeth, sent Phan-Gillis to the hospital twice, once for a five-day stay due to a fear-induce heart attack. For a time, prison guards took away her access to medical care. Gillis called that a death sentence because his wife takes seven different types of medicine a day. Under these pressures, Phan-Gillis wrote a forced confession saying she spied for the FBI. (The charge doesn’t make sense because the FBI is a domestic agency while the CIA deals with international issues.)
After six months, State Security agents moved her to a prison—first in solitary confinement and then with a cell mate. For more than a year she was not allowed to meet with a lawyer, and she could not speak with the U.S. consul unsupervised. After two years, she still has no trial date. The Chinese government has not provided her lawyer or family with a copy of the warrants for her detention, as required by Chinese and international law.
In June, a United Nations group declared China arbitrarily detained Phan-Gillis and violated her international human rights. In response, Chinese authorities filed charges claiming Phan-Gillis went on two missions to Nanning in 1996, to spy for the FBI; helped the FBI capture two Chinese spies sent to the United States in 1997; and helped turn those spies into double agents who returned to spy on China.
Gillis collected a mountain of evidence proving his wife was in Houston at the time. She did not have a Chinese visa or exit or entry stamp during the year Beijing claimed she went on spy missions. Instead, she worked as a secretary for the Houston Police Department, and her pay stubs showed she hadn’t taken time off. In those months, she was a presenter at the Texas Asian Republic Caucus and attended an event at the Houston Race Park, covered by a local newspaper that mentioned her in its report. The FBI also denies Phan-Gillis ever worked for the agency.
At first, Gillis hoped the U.S. State Department would appeal for Phan-Gillis’ release during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in 2015. But government officials refused to raise the issue, saying it didn’t advocate for individuals.
“The message I got from the State Department … was that the family is on their own,” Gillis said. “I was appalled.”
So Gillis went public with his wife’s detention, speaking with the media, which in turn grilled Xi about the case. A few days later, Gillis received a call from his wife, who begged him to stop speaking out because her captors had threatened to take away her medication. State Security officers stood around her monitoring her every word, and Gillis could hear the terror in her voice.
Since then, high-level State Department officials have raised Phan-Gillis’ case to Chinese authorities, as did former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former President Barack Obama—to no avail. Gillis hopes the new administration will continue to push his wife’s case, but during a recent meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and a high-level Chinese diplomat, neither Phan-Gillis nor human rights in general came up at all.
“I think the problem is not that Sandy’s case has not been raised enough, the problem has been that there has been absolutely zero consequences for China for kidnapping and torturing a citizen of the United States,” Gillis said. By doing nothing, Gillis believes “all we teach them is that they can get away with this.”
— by June Cheng