After being held in detention for two years on suspicion of spying and stealing state secrets, Canadian activist and former coffee shop owner Kevin Garratt was suddenly released by China this week.
Sporting a new beard, Garratt landed in Vancouver on Thursday and hugged his family for the first time since he was accused by China in August 2014 of “collecting and stealing intelligence materials related to Chinese military targets and defense research programs and engaging in activities that endanger China’s national security,” while working as a coffee shop owner on the North Korean border.
“Honestly, he looks great – a lot better than I was expecting. He’s in good spirits, and I think he’s extremely happy,” Simeon Garratt, his eldest son, told reporters. “It’s really exciting.”
The release follows years of extensive campaigning by the Canadian government to secure his freedom. Earlier this month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his first trip to China while in office. During his time there, he repeatedly pressed Chinese leadership about Garratt’s case, including at a private dinner in the Forbidden City with Premier Li Keqiang. A government official said that indications were that Garratt’s case was heading in a “positive direction.”
According to The Globe and Mail, perhaps more significant was an unannounced visit that Canadian Security Intelligence Serice director Michel Coulombe paid to China in May, in which he tried to persuade Chinese state security officials that Garratt did not work for CSIS and was not a spy.
Well, apparently China was convinced, eventually. On Tuesday, a Chinese court issued a ruling that has not been made public and the Garratts received a call informing them that Kevin was coming home.
“It was almost at the point where everyone was losing hope,” said Simeon Garratt. “And then you get the good news.”
Canadian officials have said that there will be no quid pro quo following Garratt’s release, but it does clear off one of the biggest roadblocks in Canadian-Chinese relations. At a Canadian press conference in June, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave an infamously defensive answer after being asked about China’s human rights issues, including the Garretts. Next Wednesday, Premier Li Keqiang arrives in Ottawa for an official visit.
Garratt is a Canadian Christian activist who helped to provide humanitarian aid to North Koreans. He and his wife had lived in China for some 30 years and together they ran the best damn Canadian coffee shop on the border — Peter’s Coffee Shop — in the border town of Dandong in northeastern Liaoning province, until they were both arrested in August 2014.
Garratt’s wife was released on bail back in February of 2015, though she was barred from leaving China for another year. Meanwhile, her husband remained in custody and was moved to a different facility. In January, Chinese state media reported that Garratt had been formally indicted by prosecutors in Dandong with investigators finding evidence that he had been employed to gather intelligence for Canada. His half-day trial occured in April and Canadian officials were barred for attending. A verdict was supposed to be delivered in June, but was delayed.
At the time of the pair’s detention, Simeon Garratt, told reporters that there was “no possible scenario I can think of that makes it plausible” that his parents would be working to steal military secrets.
Instead, the Garratt family believed that Kevin and Julia were targeted because of their religious beliefs. Others believe that it was retribution for Canada’s arrest of Su Bin, a Chinese businessman detained in Canada in July 2014 on suspicion of stealing US fighter jet secrets, and later extradited to the US where he was sentenced to 46 months in prison.
Either way, just look at what two long years of diplomatic negotiations can accomplish.
We remain deeply impressed by the grace and resilience of the Garratt family, especially Kevin and Julia. Statement: https://t.co/OwQa4bZRUe
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) September 15, 2016