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Kevin Garratt, Julia Dawn Garratt, Hannah Garratt and Simeon Garratt are shown in an undated photo. Kevin and Julia Garratt were detained in early August by Chinese authorities who said the Christian couple, who owned a coffee shop in a small city on the North Korean border, were suspected of stealing state military and defence-research secrets.HANDOUT/The Canadian Press

Chinese authorities have subjected two detained Canadians to intensive questioning while refusing their access to legal counsel, raising fears about what the couple might be pressured into admitting.

Kevin and Julia Garratt have now been held by China's State Security Bureau for 81 days, under suspicion of stealing military and defence research secrets. They have been held separately and under heavy guard in a government-run hotel, where they have endured interrogation sessions that have lasted up to six hours a day.

They have not been formally arrested, and Chinese authorities have denied a series of requests for legal counsel to speak with them.

Now, a lawyer hired by their family is raising alarms that their situation could place them in legal danger.

Their conditions "are nothing short of demeaning and withdrawn from meaningful human contact. Under such circumstances, any human being under the pressure of isolation could easily incriminate themselves," said James Zimmerman, the Beijing-based managing partner of law firm Sheppard Mullin Ritchter & Hampton LLP.

Chinese law would normally dictate the couple have prompt access to lawyers, but China has claimed it has no such obligation while it conducts a state secrets investigation.

Mr. Zimmerman nonetheless said "the lack of transparency and lack of due process is disturbing."

The couple's family has called on the Canadian government to press at the highest levels for their release. Ottawa has responded: early in their detention, the Garratts were raised in a series of meetings between Canadian diplomats, politicians and bureaucrats with their Chinese counterparts. The prime minister's office has threatened to have Stephen Harper snub an invitation to a meeting with top Chinese leadership in Beijing in early November.

However, the Garratts' children say they are beginning to grow concerned. Finance minister Joe Oliver, when he was in Beijing this week, did not raise the detained Canadians with Chinese finance minister Lou Jiwei. And, amid hopes that China will grant Canada status as a trading hub for its renminbi currency, advance teams have flown to Beijing to plan the bilateral meeting with Mr. Harper, though his attendance has not yet been formally confirmed.

The family had been told to prepare for the couple's return. But "everything has gone a bit quiet, which is not positive for us at all," said Simeon Garratt, the couple's oldest son.

The couple's physical needs have been taken care of, and they have the ability to request particular dining choices. China has also granted a greater number of consular visits than required.

But they have few freedoms. Early in their detention, they had been allowed regular 15-minute walks outside. That has now been occasionally extended to 30 minutes. But during at least one week, they were only allowed outside three times, Mr. Garratt said.

"Their mental well-being is definitely a concern," Mr. Garratt said.

The family, too, has felt additional strain.

Two weeks ago, the 80-year-old father of Julia Garratt was brought to hospital with stress-related symptoms. He received tests and was released.

"This is affecting other people in our family," Mr. Garratt said. "People are physically getting sick."

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