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World ‘I just can’t believe they would do it again’: Once seized by Chinese authorities, Julia Garratt laments case of Michael Kovrig

Julia Garratt and her husband Kevin were doing charity work in China when they were detained by police and accused of stealing state secrets.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

China’s detention of former diplomat Michael Kovrig has the hallmarks of “political abduction,” says a woman who was detained by Chinese authorities four years ago, in the midst of a different set of extradition proceedings.

“It’s really sad. I just can’t believe they would do it again,” said Julia Garratt, who with her husband Kevin was seized by Chinese authorities in 2014. The couple were detained shortly after a Chinese citizen was arrested in Canada at the request of the United States, which sought his extradition on spying charges.

China has not specified what charges, if any, have been brought against Mr. Kovrig, a former diplomat who has worked since last year as an analyst for the International Crisis Group. He is on leave without pay from the Canadian government.

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Mr. Kovrig was detained in Beijing on Monday night in the midst of a bail hearing for Meng Wanzhou, who the United States wants on fraud charges related to violations of Iran sanctions.

Ms. Meng was granted bail on Tuesday, but Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland on Tuesday declined to link the Huawei executive’s arrest with Mr. Kovrig’s detention.

“We are treating Mr. Kovrig’s case really seriously,” she said. “Canada’s relationship with China is important,” she added. “It’s a relationship we value that can and will and must continue.“

But China’s foreign ministry has threatened “serious consequences” for Canada if Ms. Meng is not released, and former diplomats have said Mr. Kovrig’s detention appears to be reprisal, an echo of what the Garratts experienced only a few years ago.

“They’re doing it just to get back at Canada. It was the same for us,” Mr. Garratt said in an interview Wednesday.

“It’s a really dangerous pattern for countries to behave like this with ordinary citizens,” Ms. Garratt added.

The Garratts were detained in 2014 in Dandong, the Chinese city that borders North Korea, where they had run a coffee shop and done charitable work. Mr. Garratt spent 750 days in Chinese detention and was sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage before being deported. Ms. Garratt was detained for six months.

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Like with Mr. Kovrig, their detention was widely seen as connected to Canada’s role in extradition proceedings against a Chinese citizen, Su Bin, a businessman wanted in the U.S. on spying charges. Also, like Mr. Kovrig, the couple were taken away by state security agents.

The lack of information about Mr. Kovrig means it’s not clear where he is or what measures are being taken against him.

But China’s treatment of the Garratts offers a glimpse into the harsh contours of the system that Mr. Kovrig has now been thrust into.

They were kept in an isolated compound for six months and subjected to lengthy and repeated interrogation sessions. It was akin to “a hostage-taking, because you’re not in a facility where anyone knows where it is,” Ms. Garratt said. Authorities refused them access to a lawyer.

“Living with the lights always on in a small room with guards inside the room is an incredible psychological challenge,” she said.

But the couple say they hope their experience can also provide some reassurance to Mr. Kovrig’s relatives.

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”It’s highly unlikely there would be any physical violence. That’s one thing the family can hold onto,” Ms. Garratt said.

“China will feed him. China will probably stick to six hours of interrogation a day. So it won’t be 24/7,” she said. Mr. Kovrig’s family ”just have to take hope in some of the small blessings, even though we know it’s going to be absolutely horrendous.”

The Garratts’ detention also offered an eerie portent of Chinese wariness toward foreigners, including those who have done work much like what Mr. Kovrig has done.

Mr. Kovrig is a Mandarin-speaking China specialist who has, since 2017, been the senior adviser for northeast Asia with International Crisis Group.

Prior to that, however, he served in Beijing as a diplomat with the Global Security Reporting Program, or GSRP, which equips certain diplomats with travel budgets and broad mandates for inquiry, in a bid to boost its understanding of complex global situations. People attached to GSRP are not intelligence operatives but work instead for Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian government has said.

But some foreign governments view them with suspicion.

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Among the subjects of interest to the Garratts’ interrogators was their their contact with a different Canadian diplomat who was at the time working with GSRP.

“He is a spy known to us,” the interrogators said, according to an account in the couple’s recently published book, Two Tears on the Window.

“China views things very differently than we do. And they are very fearful and almost paranoid in some ways,” Mr. Garratt said. China also “doesn’t like to be bullied or intimidated in anyway,” he said, as an explanation for the use of detention as a retaliatory tools.

Shows of Chinese strength against foreign citizens are also politically popular in a country whose political leadership has stoked nationalist sentiment.

Indeed, the Twitter-like Weibo account of the Canadian embassy in Beijing has been overwhelmed by savage comments following the arrest of Mr. Kovrig. “To the Canadian people: your former diplomat has been arrested. This is just the beginning. You should be more careful from now on,” wrote one person with the handle qibingyuanshuai. “China is a big country and not in a position to be easily disrespected by a country like yours. There is certainly a price for you to pay.”

Mr. Kovrig “is not a diplomat, he is a spy,” wrote another, mengmengdemoriyeshou. “Only by sentencing him to death could we protect the safety of several billion Chinese people.”

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The Garratts were also regularly threatened with execution by interrogators seeking to extract confessions.

“We pray it won’t play out the same” for Mr. Kovrig, Ms. Garratt said.

With a report from Angela Murphy

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