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Houston Businesswoman Marks Second Year Unjustly Detained by China

A Texan detained in China without trial marked two years behind bars on Sunday, as senators lobbied the People's Republic to return the businesswoman accused of espionage.

Sandy Phan-Gillis, 56, one of the Vietnamese "boat people" who fled the country in the 1970s, was settled in Houston, became an American citizen, and eventually brought her family over to live in the United States. She's extensively involved in Houston's business community and in the city's Chinese-American community, including hosting "countless" business delegations from China and arranging civic delegations of Texans to China. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner praised Phan-Gillis' longtime "meritorious service" to the community in a July letter to Chinese officials advocating for her release.

On March 19, 2015, Phan-Gillis was detained by China's Ministry of State Security while attempting to cross into Macau from the border city of Zhuhai. She was in the country on a trade delegation with former Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez, now sheriff of Harris County. She was denied access to a lawyer for over a year.

"I view my wife as a true American hero, and I would like to get her back," her husband, Jeff Gillis, says on a website dedicated to saving Sandy.

Gillis said the Chinese consulate in Houston told him they didn't believe the charges against Sandy were true, but they don't have the power to override China's state security apparatus.

“Sandy is not a spy or a thief," Gillis said. "She is a hard-working businesswoman who spends huge amounts of time on nonprofit activities that benefit Houston-China relations. Sandy has been a good friend to China for decades."

(Photo courtesy of www.savesandy.org)

Phan-Gillis is reportedly in ill health, and is allowed monthly visits from a U.S. consular official.

In June, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Phan-Gillis' detention and lack of access to counsel constituted an international human rights violation. "The source informs that the reasons for the detention imputed by the authorities are 'spying' and 'stealing state secrets'. No further grounds have been disclosed. It is alleged that authorities have conceded that they do not possess sufficient evidence to file formal charges against Ms. Phan-Gillis," states the UN document.

In August, China's foreign ministry announced she had been charged with espionage.

Ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Beijing on Saturday, Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent a letter to China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai.

"The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most consequential relationships in the world. We appreciate the importance of constructive relations between the United States and China. However, we do not believe that Mrs. Phan-Gillis’ continued detention serves the shared interests of Washington and Beijing," the senators wrote.