Chinese officials have released, on bail, a Canadian woman from a government-run detention centre where she had been held under suspicion of stealing state military and defence research secrets.
Julia Garratt was released to her family "pending trial by Liaoning Provincial State Security Bureau," China's Foreign Ministry said Thursday.
Ms. Garratt and her husband, Kevin, were detained by Chinese authorities on Aug. 4 in Dandong, a Chinese city on the North Korean border where the Christian couple had run a coffee shop. For six months, they were kept separately in a government-run detention centre under constant surveillance and often heavy questioning. Then, suddenly, on Tuesday Julia was released, although she has been barred from leaving China for a year.
Kevin, however, was moved to what a family statement called a "more formal detention centre at an unknown location."
A Canadian foreign affairs spokesperson issued the following statement: "While we welcome the recent decision to release Julia Garratt, the government of Canada remains very concerned with the detention of Mr. Garratt. We have raised the case at the highest levels and will continue to raise it with senior officials."
Neither Kevin nor Julia has been formally charged or arrested, and Chinese authorities have presented no evidence against either person.
Soon after she was let go by authorities, Julia spoke by Skype with her son Simeon in Vancouver. "She was just really, really happy to be out," he said. "She was basically telling me how it's so nice to have a cup of coffee, so nice to be able to pick what kind of food I want, so nice to walk wherever I want, so nice not to have fluorescent lights. It's been literally six months."
The family's joy is tempered by knowing little about what Julia might face in a trial, and almost nothing about the situation Kevin Garratt is in – where he is or what the next legal steps might be.
There's "still a lot of uncertainty as to what's going on with my dad and what his conditions are like, and what the timeline is for that," Simeon said.
In a statement, James Zimmerman, a Beijing lawyer who has acted for the family, called "upon the Chinese government to ensure that this matter is handled with transparency and due process as required by Chinese law and fundamental international standards."
The family also urged the Canadian government to maintain diplomatic pressure "with a sense of urgency."
The Garratts were detained last year in the midst of a diplomatic row between China and Canada over hacking allegations, and the couple's case was raised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a visit last November.
At the time, Mr. Li told reporters: "I want to reiterate that as China continues to build a country under the rule of law, I believe that judicial authorities should be able to handle cases in accordance with the law."
China's Foreign Ministry echoed that statement on Thursday, saying: "Relevant Chinese offices will deal with this case by law, and will also guarantee the legal rights of the two persons based on the law."
But China frequently subjects its own laws to its political agenda, and has vast latitude in how it treats people under suspicion of state secrecy violations, since authorities can say the disclosure of information might itself constitute a state secrecy violation.
The Garratts' case, then, remains delicate, with the family fearful of saying anything that might jeopardize the future for either Kevin or Julia. Though released, Julia is not free.
"It seems she's still very much under the same rules she was before – but she is able to eat the food she wants and sleep in a bed, basically," Simeon said.
After six months with the stress of guards in her room at all times and little knowledge about what the future might hold, Julia appeared to have lost weight and was also very careful in what she said, her son said.
She said, " 'I don't want to do anything wrong. I just want some time that's peaceful to myself,' " he said. "Mentally she's fine. It's going to take some time to get back to normal life."
The Garratts first moved to China in 1984 and over the years taught English, ran a translation company, operated a kindergarten and helped at community centres. In 2008, they moved to Dandong, on the border with North Korea, where they opened Peter's Coffee House, which they named after their second son.
Kevin is a Pentecostal pastor, and Julia taught at a university in Dandong. The couple received financial support from churches in Canada, held services in their home and shared their faith with patrons at their cafe. They moved to Dandong because "we're trying to reach North Korea with God, with Jesus, and practical assistance," Kevin once told a Canadian church.
The practical assistance involved travelling into North Korea to deliver food and equipment to orphanages and homes for the elderly. The couple's latest trip into the reclusive country was in the summer of 2014, at the invitation of North Korean officials.
But with Chinese authorities presenting no charges or evidence against them, it has been difficult to ascertain why they were taken away.
The involvement of China's Foreign Ministry in disclosing Julia's release on Thursday further raised suspicions of a political or diplomatic motive.
The Garratts were detained little more than a month after Canadian authorities arrested a Chinese national named Su Bin in British Columbia. U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has accused Mr. Su of masterminding a hacking attack to steal fighter jet secrets from companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
A court revoked Mr. Su's Canadian permanent residency and denied him bail last summer. He remains in Canadian custody, and is scheduled for an extradition hearing in July.