Espionage charges levied against a Canadian man could put a chill on recent efforts to improve Chinese-Canadian relations, says a political scientist.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported Thursday that Kevin Garratt — who was arrested alongside his wife Julia Garratt in 2014 — was indicted by prosecutors in Dandong city, located across the Yalu River from North Korea.
Chinese authorities allegedly found evidence that Garratt was accepting requests from Canadian espionage agencies to gather intelligence in China, the news agency reported.
Julia Garratt was released on bail in February 2015 and has not been charged.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs said Canadian consular officials are providing support to Garratt and his wife.
“Canada finds the indictment of Kevin Garratt by China concerning,” spokesperson François Lasalle said in an email.
Garratt’s father, Ross Garratt, of Innisfil, Ont., told the Toronto Star Thursday that his son’s health is poor, and the family is hoping China will release him on humanitarian grounds.
“He should be out of jail, that’s for sure,” he said.
Lasalle said Canadian officials had raised the case with high-level members of the Chinese government. Shortly after the Garratts were arrested, both Stephen Harper and John Baird advocated for the couple’s release.
The husband and wife had been living in China for 30 years as humanitarian aid workers and ran a popular café in Dandong city.
Yves Tiberghien, director of University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research, told the Star the charges couldn’t come at a worse time. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a reception in Ottawa to honour the 45th anniversary of China-Canada relations, alongside China’s ambassador to Canada Luo Zhaohui.
It was a high-profile celebration, and one that signified a turning point in the relationship between the two countries, Tiberghien said.
Tiberghien said the awkward timing suggests that Garratt’s indictment comes straight from China’s military and security apparatus, and that diplomatic officials were likely left out of the loop.
“In this case, it was not co-ordinated. It probably would be embarrassing to the foreign minister of China, because it’s a time when they’re improving relations, and it’s going to be set back,” Tiberghien said.
Ross Garratt said the family gets regular updates on their son’s condition, and was told to expect formal charges this week.
“I think they’re just persecuting him because he’s a Christian and he was helping out the people over there,” he said.
In November 2013, Kevin Garratt spoke at the Terra Nova Church in Surrey, B.C. and said that “God gave the couple a vision” to start the coffee house.
Kevin Garratt and his wife have lived in China since the 1980s, where they developed ties to the local Christian community. But most of their humanitarian activities in China were focused on delivering food to the poor, Ross Garratt said.
Shortly after the Garratts were detained in 2014, their eldest son, Simeon, said he knew of “no possible scenario” that his parents would be stealing state secrets about military and national defence research.
The couple’s arrest occurred days after the Canadian government accused Chinese hackers of infiltrating computers at the National Research Council of Canada, a claim Beijing vehemently denies, which led some to suggest that the Garratt’s arrest was an act of retaliation.
But Tiberghien — who calls the charges against Garratt “improbable” — said that explanation seems less and less likely.
“We’re in a very different mood right now with the relationship,” he said.
Instead, he said that Garratt was likely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is now the victim of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. He said he hopes continued diplomatic pressure would lead to the couple’s release.
– With files from Toronto Star staff and The Canadian Press