China deports to U.S. Houston woman convicted of spying

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A Houston businesswoman who was detained in China as she accompanied city officials on a routine business trip in 2015 was deported back to the United States and arrived in Los Angeles late Friday, her husband said.

Sandy Phan-Gillis was in good health, Jeff Gillis said, and relieved to be home after a terrifying two-year ordeal that had the Chinese government accuse her of espionage, which carries a possible death sentence by execution.

BACKGROUND: China sentences Houston businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis in spying case 

“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 said in a statement. “Many of Sandy’s friends and family members have been crying tears of joy throughout the day.”

Jeff Gillis said he and Sandy are going to spend a few days in L.A. so she can spend time with her family there.

The 57-year-old was arrested in March 2015 while leading a trade delegation including Houston’s former mayor pro-tem Ed Gonzalez. The group were passing through an immigration control connecting mainland China with Macau, when she suddenly disappeared.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE: UN panel blasts China for arbitrarily detaining Houston business woman 

Her imprisonment was a source of tension between Washington and Beijing and her return came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met to discuss North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, an important issue for both countries. Her release was seen as a sign of improving relations.

The case had stalled for two years until Tillerson reportedly raised it again in March. Tuesday, a Chinese judge sentenced Phan-Gillis to three and a half years in prison, an unusually light sentence, making it seem likely she could be credited for having served most of it.

The Chinese Consulate in Houston didn’t respond Friday to a request for comment and neither did the U.S. State Department. Phan-Gillis’ lawyer, David Zhang, didn’t return an email.

HARD TIMES: Husband says Houston businesswoman detained in China suffered ‘mental torture’

Her homecoming marks the end of a bizarre saga that worried many Americans in China and reflected an increased aggression to go after people Beijing suspects of harming its interests. But it does little to answer why China thought she was a spy at all.

A Vietnamese refugee of Chinese descent, Phan-Gillis spent decades forging strong partnerships with the communist country, leading delegations to China and hosting Chinese groups in Houston. She founded the city’s Chinese New Year festival, and headed the Houston Shenzhen Sister City Association.

But to Chinese authorities, Phan-Gillis was a spy, going to Nanning, the capital of the Guangxi region in southern China, in 1996 to conduct espionage, according to an indictment. Beijing accused her of recruiting Chinese citizens to spy for foreign agencies and spying herself in 1997 and 1998, though more detailed allegations were never made public.

Jeff Gillis repeatedly maintained his wife’s innocence, saying that her passport shows that she did not visit China at all in 1996.

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