World News

China sets spy trial date for U.S. woman ahead of Obama visit

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - China has set a trial date for this month for a U.S. businesswoman accused of spying, charges her husband in Texas said on Thursday were false, and the U.S. State Department said it was concerned about her welfare.

Sandy Phan-Gillis, arrested on suspicion of spying by Chinese authorities in March 2015 while visiting the country as part of a trade delegation from Houston, is seen in an undated photo taken and provided by her husband Jeff Gillis. Picture courtesy of Jeff Gillis/Handout via Reuters

Sandy Phan-Gillis, who was born in Vietnam and has Chinese ancestry, was arrested on suspicion of spying by Chinese authorities in March 2015 while visiting the country as part of a trade delegation from Houston.

In a statement on Thursday, her husband, Jeff Gillis, accused Chinese authorities of suppressing evidence that would weaken the case against her.

“The charges are absolutely false,” he said, adding that he wants U.S. President Barack Obama to ask for her release when he attends a summit with China’s leader this week.

The announcement of the Sept. 19 trial date renewed attention on her case just ahead of a visit to China by Obama, who is due to arrive on Saturday for a G20 summit in the city of Hangzhou. Obama is scheduled to hold meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday.

Gillis said a main contention of the charge against his wife was that she had gone on a spy mission to China in 1996.

He said her U.S. passport showed she had not travelled to China at that time and accused the Chinese Consulate in Houston of refusing to acknowledge that there were no entry or exit visas from China in that passport. This, he said, prevented her passport from being used as evidence at her trial.

China’s Foreign Ministry said earlier this week that Phan-Gillis, now a U.S. citizen, had been formally charged with spying.

“We continue to monitor her case closely,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a press briefing in Washington, adding that officers from the U.S. consulate Beijing had visited her on a monthly basis since she was detained.

“We have repeatedly pressed Chinese authorities to provide further details of the case and to give our consular officers full and unrestricted access to her as required by the Vienna convention. We urge the government of China to review and consider seriously the ... views expressed by the U.N. working group on arbitrary detention, including its recommendation to release Ms. Phan-Gillis.”

At a regular briefing on Friday in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China abided by the rule of law.

“Please believe that relevant Chinese authorities will strictly handle the case in accordance with the law,” Hua said.

“The United States should respect the right of the relevant Chinese legal authorities to handle the case in accordance with the law.”

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Alan Crosby and Nick Macfie