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Kevin Garratt and his wife Julia pose for a portrait in the backyard of a home they're staying at after returning to Canada.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Garratts didn't realize they were being set up until it was too late.

It was August, 2014, and the Christian aid workers were at a restaurant in the remote northern Chinese city of Dandong, on the North Korean border, where they had lived and run a café for years.

An acquaintance had asked them for advice on sending his daughter to study in Canada – so there they were, prepared to offer assistance, as they had been doing in China since falling in love with the country 30 years before.

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Shortly after arriving amid what looked like a wedding party, Kevin and Julia Garratt were grabbed by strange men and driven away in separate cars.

The surprise arrest launched a dark odyssey through the Chinese state security apparatus: Mr. Garratt was imprisoned for two years on espionage charges, Ms. Garratt was detained, then placed under surveillance, and the family was traumatized, immiserated and finally reunited, with troubling questions to spare. The episode would also become a flashpoint in Sino-Canadian relations as the countries negotiated the launch of talks on an extradition treaty.

Three months after returning to Canada, the Garratts sat down with The Globe and Mail to give their most detailed account yet of the harrowing journey.

As they try to put their life back together, the couple are trying to find meaning in a trial that often seemed meaningless.

"How did you make it through?" Mr. Garratt said. "It was our faith, it was our trust that God would see us through."

Perhaps surprisingly, the couple refuses to think of China with bitterness.

Ms. Garratt tried to sum up her feelings toward a country that gave them so much, and then nearly took it all away: "Twenty-eight years of thank yous," she said, "and two years of hell."

As she was driven through the August night two years ago, Ms. Garratt was confused and scared. Neither she nor her husband had any idea who had taken them, or why.

"Is it thugs?" she thought. "Is it North Korea kidnapping me? Is it China kidnapping me?"

"I said, 'You must have the wrong people.' And they said, 'No, you're the right people.'"

After years of charity work throughout China, the Garratts had moved to Dandong to pursue aid projects in North Korea, opening their coffee shop in May, 2008. At the invitation of the country's regime, the couple had built bathrooms for orphanages, helped with flood relief and rebuilt facilities at a school for the disabled.

All the while, they ran a coffee shop in the Chinese border city that was frequented by students and foreign journalists. The shop also attracted local diplomats hoping to learn about North Korea through two Canadians who had been given rare levels of access to the country. The couple would later learn through their Chinese interrogators that a U.S. military attaché had visited the café.

Former foreign affairs minister John Baird requested a meeting during his tenure. And in 2009, the Garratts were contacted by Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Canadian spy agency, to ensure the couple hadn't violated sanctions through their aid work. (They hadn't.) Ms. Garratt now believes all of the attention from foreign diplomats and security agencies put a bull's eye on their backs.

Unbeknownst to them, another drama was playing out, as the United States sought the deportation from Canada of Su Bin, a Chinese man accused of masterminding a plan to steal U.S. military secrets. Diplomatic discussions suggested very strongly the Garratts had been seized in retribution.

"The Su Bin thing was front and centre," said James Zimmerman, a prominent U.S. lawyer in Beijing hired by the family. "In my view that was pretty much the reason for all this happening."

Still, Ms. Garratt knew none of this when she was taken to a local police station for questioning. There she was told, in a Mandarin she still understood imperfectly, that she was suspected of being a spy.

"Then you're shaking, and you're in shock," she said.

The state security officers told her to remove all of her personal belongings but her clothes – rings, her phone, her computer, supplies from her teaching job. With her husband still in a separate room, Ms. Garratt was driven for about an hour to an empty compound in the country. It was "pitch black," she recalled.

Still in a dress and high heels, she was placed in the room that would be her home for the next six months. Two female guards stood by the door. Ms. Garratt wept.

"I was just thinking, 'Are they going to execute us?'" she said.

Meanwhile, her husband was being taken to the couple's apartment in Dandong. "They whisked me into an unmarked car," he said. "They said, 'Think of us as the FBI.'"

Investigators were ransacking the apartment, he recalled, asking suspiciously about household items such as salt shakers and jars of honey. It was one of many moments tinged with the surreal that would mark the following two years.

Later that night, he was taken to the same compound as his wife. But for months, guards refused to tell him her whereabouts. He suspected that she was in the building, but lived in terrified doubt.

For six months, their only excursions were occasional separate trips to meet with consular officials in Dandong without seeing the other person. Protocol prevented the officials from discussing the Garratts' case with them. Nor did the couple have a way of contacting their relatives; their son found out about his parents' detention from the Chinese news.

Eventually, Ms. Garratt was released on bail, on the condition that she meet with the authorities once a week, among other restrictions. She was told that this arrangement was a "great privilege." Instead, she found it paralyzing. Fear kept her cooped in the couple's apartment. Unable to work, she was provided with food by local friends who visited with whatever they could scrounge.

Mr. Garratt faced a worse fate. He was transferred to the Dandong prison and placed in tiny cell crammed with about a dozen inmates. Some of his cellmates were drug addicts suffering from withdrawal who would steal food and moan for a fix in the night. Others were accused of murder.

Soon, Mr. Garratt noticed that some of the inmates were wearing bright yellow vests. When he asked what the vests meant, he was told that they were given to prisoners awaiting execution. Another class of prisoners were given purple vests, indicating that the men had AIDS.

Although he never experienced violence behind bars, he had some close calls. When a fight in an adjacent cell led to one of the brawlers being bunked next to him, Mr. Garratt placated the man with offerings of food.

Other cellmates were easier to get along with, and provided a window into the sometimes cruel vagaries of the Chinese justice system. Mr. Garratt befriended a doctor accused of selling medical equipment without a licence he didn't know he needed. Another frightened young man was locked up for betting on NBA games. There was even a senior police officer among his cellmates – the head of the local drug squad, who had been busted for allegedly manufacturing drugs of his own.

The prison guards, like the system they represented, could be capricious. Sometimes they enforced odd rules, such as banning red socks. And every night at 7 p.m., inmates were made to gather around the TV in their cell and watch the state news broadcast.

Other times, the guards performed small acts of kindness, such as bringing Mr. Garratt family photos. Other prisoners liked to gaze at these snapshots from home, Mr. Garratt said, as if experiencing family life vicariously through them.

Mr. Garratt received many favours denied to other prisoners. The couple believes that local security officials tacitly acknowledged the peculiarity of his case, and took pity on him.

While the Garratts were still in custody together, officials organized a Christmas dinner for them and their son. The following year, an investigator on their case took Ms. Garratt shopping at a local market to buy Christmas treats for her husband. As the investigator carried her bags, she bought beef jerky and tinsel.

Other privileges ranged from the small – a trip to the hairdresser – to the immeasurable, such as confinement in the prison's medical wing, where the cells were about half as crowded and inmates didn't have to work all day. (Mr. Garratt also developed an irregular heartbeat while in custody, along with other heart ailments.)

After a hasty trial on April 20, during which he wasn't able to speak to his lawyer, he waited nearly five months for a verdict. That finally came on Sept. 13. Without warning, he was summoned to hear an eight-page judgment that he only dimly understood. Later, a consular official would tell him that the document's key word was "deportation." He had been found guilty, but he would be going home.

The compromise appears to have resulted from a diplomatic coup by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who raised the Garratt case with Chinese leadership during an official visit earlier that month.

Mr. Garratt returned home on Sept. 15; Mr. Trudeau called with congratulations on the flight to Vancouver. But the Chinese government did not let Mr. Garratt go before he accepted a roughly $20,000 fine for espionage, and paid back about $9,000 in unidentified expenses. The government also seized the couple's business in Dandong and their personal savings, which amounted to about $40,000.

The Garratts are elated to be free, and especially to see their four grown children, who live on the West Coast. But they also face a hard road ahead. Their life was in China, and so was their livelihood. They're currently couch surfing with friends, family and supportive church communities.

"Now we're just thinking about how to get enough money to buy a car and a house," Ms. Garratt said.

"It's taking us a while to feel comfortable and we're not quite there yet," Mr. Garratt added.

Still, inspired by their Christian faith, the couple are trying to find a silver lining in the terrible ordeal. They hope to use their experience of injustice and abuse to help others who have faced the same.

"We belong now to a community that we didn't before – people who have been wrongfully accused, people who have become pawns in other people's arguments," Ms. Garratt said. "Let's now use this positively to say, 'Let's love our neighbours. Let's serve each other.'"

With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe

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