Chinese government officials returned a Texas businesswoman to the United States just days after convicting her of espionage charges.
"I'm relieved that Sandy Phan-Gillis has been released and will soon be reunited with her loved ones in Houston," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Saturday. "The unlawful detention of an American citizen for more than two years with little to no explanation by Chinese authorities is shameful and unacceptable."
Phan-Gillis was arrested in 2015 on charges of having spied for the United States in 1996. The Obama administration and United Nations condemned the arrest as a case of "arbitrary detention," but Chinese authors proceeded with a case against her that culminated in her receiving a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence on Tuesday. Within days, however, she was returned unexpectedly home — deported, rather than being required to serve her sentence.
"We are aware that Chinese authorities deported Ms. Phan-Gillis back to the United States," a State Department official told the Washington Examiner. "The United States welcomes her home."
American leaders still fumed that she had been detained at all. "It should be noted that Sandy's purpose in visiting China two years ago was to strengthen commercial and cultural exchanges on behalf of the city of Houston," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Saturday. "The Chinese government — cynically and to the astonishment of many — perceived this cultural bridge-builder as a threat. Sandy was unjustly deprived of her liberty for two years, time during which she was denied basic legal protections and her loved ones lacked accurate information about her condition."
Her release comes in the midst of a flurry of high-level diplomacy between the United States and China, chiefly focused on the threat of the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Beijing in March, followed by Chinese President Xi Jinping's trip to Mar-a-Lago in April. China's top diplomat attended a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Friday that Tillerson chaired, also focused on the North Korean threat.
"Consular officers most recently met with Ms. Phan-Gillis on April 10, 2017," a State Department official told the Washington Examiner. "We regularly raised Ms. Phan-Gillis' case with Chinese officials, including at the most senior levels. Beyond what we have already said, we will not discuss the specific nature of our conversations about this case."
Her return gives the Trump administration something to celebrate on his 100th day in office, a significant milestone for his team. "This is a day of great celebration for her family and all Texans," Cruz said. "I applaud the State Department and thank President Trump for his leadership in securing Sandy's release."