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Charged With Spying On China, American Woman's Husband Insists She's Innocent

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Chinese authorities have charged Sandy Phan-Gillis, who is a U.S. citizen, with spying for the United States in 1996. Ms. Phan-Gillis was in China with a trade delegation from Houston when she was detained at a border crossing in China in March 2015. She has been imprisoned ever since. Her husband, Jeff Gillis, insists that she is innocent and has been fighting for her release. He joins us now from member station KUHF in Houston. Mr. Gillis, thanks so much for being with us.

JEFF GILLIS: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And have you been given a list of specific charges as to what the Chinese insist she's done that qualifies as spying?

GILLIS: I wouldn't say a list of specific charges but some general charges. So the one that is the most specific is the claim that in 1996 she went on a spy mission to China to Guangxi province and, you know, spied for the FBI. And, I mean, there's a number of issues with that. I mean, one of them is that I have all kinds of evidence that Sandy did not go to China in 1996. I have the evidence of her passport. I have the evidence of her paystubs.

I mean, she was a full-time employee of the Houston Police Department as a secretary, a clerk typist, when she allegedly was doing the spy work. The paystubs show that she'd taken 11 hours off during the time in question. I've also got a newspaper article that she appeared in. So, I mean, we have a fair amount of evidence that shows that she was not in China in 1996.

SIMON: Why would the Chinese government be interested in putting your wife in prison if there wasn't something that made them suspicious?

GILLIS: So this is not the police that investigate regular crimes. This is the, you know, China Ministry of State Security. This is a bunch of spies. They don't trust anybody. And in point of fact, I mean, they look at people involved in nonprofit work like my wife with a great deal of suspicion. And the fact of the matter is the state security has sent a number of people to the U.S. to spy, and the FBI has been catching these people. And I am sure that the Ministry of State Security is just not very happy about that.

One of the things that Sandy has been told repeatedly by state security is that she can probably go as part of a prisoner swap. They've asked her to raise this many times, and she has. The thing is our country knows that she is not a spy, and they're probably not going to want to be trading real Chinese spies for an American citizen who's basically been kidnapped. I wouldn't try and talk President Obama out of it. Whatever he can do to bring my wife home is fine with me. But I have to wonder what some of the country's leaders might think.

SIMON: I understand you've been able to speak with your wife a few times while she's been in prison.

GILLIS: The day of her detention I got a call from her that was basically meant to mislead me. So she called to let me know that she was going to be staying in China longer to take care of some of her business. And in fact, this was not a surprise to me. I mean, when Sandy goes to China, frequently she'll stay longer. And so when when she called and said she was going to stay longer, I didn't think anything of it at all. A few days later, I get a different call from her, and she sounded different there. She sounded a bit off. But, I mean, to me, I just thought she was tired. She works pretty hard when she's in China. And I just thought she was tired.

The other time that I have spoken with Sandy actually happened last September. I had started a media campaign on behalf of Sandy, and on the 23rd of September, the U.S. consul met with Sandy, showed Sandy screenshots of the website, showed her, you know, some of the articles that had been written. And Sandy was very supportive of the media campaign, very thankful for what we were doing for her and asked us to keep it up.

Now, on the very next day, on the 24 of September, I got a call from Sandy clearly terrified, clearly had been threatened and, you know, had been told that she needed to get me to stop the media campaign or she was going to be losing access to her medicine, losing access to a doctor, you know, losing her consular visits. Well, my wife has lots of medical problems. She's got seven prescription medicines she takes a day, and, really, to threaten to take away her medicine is just not much different than threatening to kill her.

When Sandy asked me to stop, she didn't just ask me to stop. She begged with me to tell the people who were in the room with me that you will stop the media campaign. She was surrounded by a bunch of very scary people from China's state security, and she was clearly terrified. I was clearly terrified for her.

SIMON: President Obama is going to be there this weekend. Do you want him to say something?

GILLIS: I absolutely do. I mean, you know, I did not decide to restart the media campaign because of the G-20. But I think the best chance for Sandy getting out anytime in the near future is if President Obama has a conversation with President Xi Jinping about Sandy and they reach some sort of a resolution that brings her home. And my concern is that if that doesn't happen, we now have a trial date that's been scheduled. It's going to be September 19. We've already got a case where our evidences is being blocked by the China consulate here in Houston. And in China, the prosecution wins about 99.9 percent of the cases. So really you shouldn't expect to be able to win that trial.

SIMON: Jeff Gillis, his wife, Sandy Phan-Gillis, is in prison on espionage charges in China. Thanks so much for being with us.

GILLIS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.