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Rights group demands release of US businesswoman held by mainland China for espionage

Sandy Phan-Gillis was seized in March 2015 on accusations of “spying,” “stealing state secrets,” and “assisting external parties to steal national intelligence,” a U.N. Human Rights Council panel said in a report, citing government and confidential sources.

She was held at the Macau border after visiting China with a trade delegation from the Texas oil capital Houston.

The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) said that “international norms relating to the right to a fair trial and to liberty and security” had not been observed in her case.

Violations by the mainland Chinese authorities were of “such gravity as to give the deprivation of liberty of Ms. Phan-Gillis an arbitrary character,” it noted in its report, released Sunday.

Phan-Gillis was held for six months at a secret location and later at a detention center in the southern region of Guangxi, where she was initially put in solitary confinement, WGAD said.

The report was the first time in WGAD’s 25-year history that it had “ruled that (Chinese) agents have arbitrarily detained an American citizen in violation of international human rights law,” U.S.-based rights group the Dui Hua Foundation said Wednesday.

Phan-Gillis had been allowed to see a lawyer for the first time, 14 months after she was taken into custody, the group added in a statement.

The case has “badly damaged U.S.-China relations,” said its executive director John Kamm.

“Dui Hua joins the WGAD, the American government, and members of Congress in calling for Sandy Phan-Gillis’ immediate release,” he added.

At a regular briefing Wednesday, mainland Chinese external affairs agency spokesman Hong Lei said the Texan had been detained on “suspicion of compromising national security.”

Authorities were dealing with her case “in accordance with the law,” he said, adding: “We hope that the relevant U.N. institution can respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop interfering in the legal proceedings of competent authorities in China.”

His comments came as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in the country for a five-day visit.

Phan-Gillis, a member of Houston’s International Trade and Development Council, is currently the only American being held on suspicion of spying in China, but other foreign citizens have been accused of espionage.

Feng Xue, a Chinese-born U.S. geologist who spent more than seven years in a Chinese prison after being convicted on state secrets charges, was released last year and deported.

Australian national Stern Hu, an executive with the mining giant Rio Tinto, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2010 on bribery and trade secrets charges.

A Canadian Christian couple who ran a coffee shop in the Chinese border city of Dandong, and aided Christians fleeing North Korea, were detained on espionage charges in 2014. The husband was formally charged with stealing state secrets and his wife bailed.

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