Outside the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, a small group of demonstrators demanded the release of Sandy Phan-Gillis, the Chinese-Vietnamese-American businesswoman, who has been in jail in China for more than a year, accused of spying.
China plans to try Phan-Gillis on espionage charges sometime next month, but her supporters in Houston say she is innocent and possibly a pawn in a much larger game between the United States and China.
Her main champion has been her husband, Jeff Gillis, who has hired lawyers, lobbied with the U.S. State Department and tried to rally support for her cause in the United States.
Phan-Gillis’ daughter, Katherine Phan, came from her home in Seattle to attend Friday's demonstration.
“I am here because I want my mom home,” she told VOA. “I want her back and to not be accused of something she has never done.”
She says her mother has done much to bring the people of Houston and the people of China together, not just through business ties, but through cultural programs.
Kevin Klein, who has known both Jeff and Sandy for many years, stood on the curb in front of the consulate building waving placards as cars passed by on the busy street.
“It is a shame to be in such a predicament, because, truly, I do not think she did anything wrong,” he said.
Proof of innocence
The Sandy Phan-Gillis trial was set for this week, but Chinese authorities delayed its start for at least two weeks, likely pushing it into October.
Jeff Gillis views the delay somewhat favorably.
“Having some more time for the defense lawyers is a good thing,” he said, "... there is all kinds of evidence that we have that we want to make sure gets into trial.”
He said he can prove that his wife was not even in China in 1996 when her accusers say she carried out espionage there.
“We have abundant evidence that Sandy was in Houston at the time,” he said. “We have the evidence of her passport, which has no China visa in 1996, no exit stamp, no entry stamp.”
The Chinese also accuse of her of trying to recruit Chinese Americans as spies.
One of the few Asian faces among the protesters was that of a Vietnamese-American named Mary who came to know Sandy Phan-Gillis through a social group and now worries for her safety.
“She is in such a dire situation that is why I felt compelled to protest,” she said. “I am not the kind of person who typically protests anything.”
Leaders of Houston’s large Chinese and Vietnamese communities have been largely silent when it comes to this case.
Jeff Gillis said many of them are wary of getting involved, either because of business they do with China or because they are worried about reprisals against relatives who still live in the communist country.
Sympathy for the cause
Justin Gardiner is a local investment manager who never met Sandy, but was moved to join her cause by her husband’s lonely battle.
“It broke my heart that this guy has really been running this thing for the most part by himself,” he said.
Using his business contacts, Gardiner hopes to increase support for the cause.
“The court of public opinion will demand that the individuals who have the power here in the states (the USA) put pressure on those who have the power in China to do what is right and send her home,” he said.
But U.S. influence on China these days is limited as the two nations spar over a variety of issues that vastly overshadow the predicament of one woman.
Jeff Gillis knows what his wife is up against in a country that is routinely accused of human rights violations.
“It is still a secret trial, it is closed, there is nobody that is going to be allowed except Sandy and her defense lawyers,” he said.
He is encouraged by the U.N. Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s declaration in July that his wife’s rights under international law have been violated, and she should be immediately released.
He also cites examples of U.S. business executives, who he said, have had second thoughts about going to China on trade missions or business meetings.
“They saw what happened to Sandy, and they decided that they are not going to go until they see what the outcome of Sandy’s case is, because they just don’t want to take the risk for their people,” he said.
But very few people, even in her hometown, know about Sandy Phan-Gillis. People coming to the consulate in Houston to obtain a visa were puzzled by the protest and confessed they knew nothing about the case.