September 23, 2015 / 2:10 PM / 2 years ago

U.S. woman says her detention in China for spy probe is about politics

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A Houston woman detained in China in a case the unfolded as Chinese President Xi Jinping began a state visit to the United States said she was being held over politics and not for any crime, according to a letter released on Wednesday.

Sandy Phan-Gillis, of Texas, in an undated photo. REUTERS/Courtesy SaveSandy.org

Chinese authorities have been holding Sandy Phan-Gillis for about six months under suspicion of spying and stealing state secrets. Details of her detention emerged as Xi began his visit, which includes a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.

“This is not a criminal case,” she said in a letter transcribed by a U.S. consular official in China and sent to her family in Texas. “This is a political case.”

The letter said Phan-Gillis was waiting for a court date but did not know when it would be.

“Or I am waiting for a lobbying of exchange of political prisoners,” she said on Wednesday in her monthly meeting with a consular official.

Phan-Gillis, a naturalized American, runs a consulting firm that works with Chinese and American firms. She has made several trips to China without incident, her husband, Jeff Gillis, said from Texas, adding that she is not a spy or a thief.

She is being held in solitary confinement and interrogated once or twice a day, Gillis said after hearing from the consular official.

China’s state secrets law is notoriously broad, covering everything from industry data to the exact birth dates of state leaders. Information can also be labeled a state secret retroactively.

Phan-Gillis visited China on a trade delegation from Houston and was detained while attempting to cross from the southern city of Zhuhai to Macau on March 19, according to the family statement.

It was unclear whether any formal charges have been brought. A lawyer working on her case was not immediately available.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that it was “disconcerting” that many of the U.S. government’s questions about Phan-Gillis’ status “have gone unanswered” by Chinese officials.

The subject might come up when Obama and Xi meet, Earnest added.

Xi arrived in the Seattle area on Tuesday to kick off a weeklong U.S. visit that also includes meetings with business leaders, a black-tie state dinner at the White House and an address at the United Nations.

Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn

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