APRIL 25, 2017
BEIJING — An American businesswoman from Houston was sentenced to three and half years in prison in China on spying charges on Tuesday, over two years after Chinese security officers spirited her away and 20 or more years after the alleged espionage was said to have taken place, her lawyer said.
But the businesswoman, Phan Phan-Gillis, often called Sandy, may soon be deported to the United States, allowing her to reunite with her husband, Jeff Gillis, who has adamantly rejected the accusations and fought for her freedom, said her lawyer, Shang Baojun.
After a secret trial in the morning in Nanning, the capital of the Guangxi region in southern China, a judge declared Ms. Phan-Gillis guilty, sentenced her and ordered her expelled from China — but left unclear whether she had to serve out her prison sentence before being deported, Mr. Shang said by telephone.
“A court can order expulsion from the country for foreign nationals either after serving a sentence or concurrent with a sentence starting, but the judge wasn’t clear on which applied here, so I also have to wait to read the verdict,” Mr. Shang said. “Of course, I hope that they’ll deport her as soon as possible, but we have to wait until we see the written verdict to be sure.”
It could be days before he receives the written judgment, he said.
The uncertainty about the sentence has added an agonizing twist to a case that turned Ms. Phan-Gillis’s husband into an amateur detective and lobbyist, seeking to clear his wife of the accusation that she had worked as a spy for the American authorities. Mr. Gillis said by email that he did not want to comment on the trial.
The United States Consulate in Guangzhou, in southern China, has handled Ms. Phan-Gillis’s consular needs while she has been held in Nanning, 315 miles to the west. The consulate confirmed that she had stood trial but gave no details.
“We continue to follow Ms. Phan-Gillis’s case closely,” the consulate’s press office said by email. “We have regularly raised Ms. Phan-Gillis’s case with Chinese officials, including at the most senior levels.”
China’s president, Xi Jinping, has redoubled the government’s longstanding warnings that it faces dire threats from foreign spies and subversion, and state security officers have appeared increasingly active. Other foreigners have also been tried on spying charges, including a Canadian man released last year soon after his trial ended with a guilty verdict. But ethnic Chinese people appear especially vulnerable, because officials have fewer scruples about detaining them.
Calls to the Nanning Intermediate People’s Court, where Ms. Phan-Gillis was tried, went unanswered, and there was no word of the trial in Chinese news media. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to faxed questions about the case.
Ms. Phan-Gillis, 57, was seized near a border crossing by Chinese security officers in March 2015, when she was accompanying a delegation of officials and businesspeople from Houston, including the mayor pro tem at the time, Ed Gonzalez.
Ms. Phan-Gillis was born in Vietnam into an ethnic Chinese family, and she fled in her teens by boat, eventually settling in the United States. She worked as a consultant for Houston businesses interested in Chinese customers and investment, as well as for Chinese businesses interested in Texas, and she traveled often to southern China.
At first, Mr. Gillis said, he kept quiet about Ms. Phan-Gillis’s detention and hoped that Chinese investigators would release her after realizing the charges were groundless.
But as the months wore on, Mr. Gillis concluded that the Chinese authorities would not back down, and he turned to public appeals to seek her freedom.
He was told that she had been formally arrested in September 2015, days before Mr. Xi arrived in the United States for a visit.
“I really don’t want to be disruptive. I don’t want to ruin anybody’s party,” Mr. Gillis said at the time. “I just want to get my wife back.”
Ms. Phan-Gillis was indicted last July, setting in motion preparations for the trial. Mr. Gillis said then that the claims in the indictment crumbled under closer scrutiny. The prosecutors claimed that Ms. Phan-Gillis had spied in China for a time in 1996 when she was not even in the country, he said.
In the indictment, the prosecutors also claimed that Ms. Phan-Gillis had tried to recruit Chinese people living in the United States to work for a “foreign spy organization.” Mr. Gillis said that claim was also false. “The charges are beyond ridiculous,” he said.
The lawyer, Mr. Shang, said he could not discuss what specific accusations prosecutors made at the trial, because lawyers are forbidden to publicly disclose national security cases without approval. But their broad accusation was that Ms. Phan-Gillis “engaged in activities harmful to Chinese national security” in both China and the United States between 1995 and 1998, he said. At the trial, Ms. Phan-Gillis pleaded guilty to the spying charge, he said.
“After the verdict was read out, the chief judge didn’t ask her whether she’d appeal,” Mr. Shang said. “But when I met her yesterday and previously and asked her, she said she wouldn’t appeal, as long as she could leave China as soon as possible.”
Ms. Phan-Gillis previously said that she was innocent, but she may have changed her position in the hope of early release and a return home. A United Nations human rights panel last year demanded her release after finding that she had suffered arbitrary detention and deprivation of access to lawyers.
“They put words in my mouth,” Ms. Phan-Gillis told a visiting American consular officer, according to an earlier account given by Mr. Gillis.