Canadian couple detained in China know what ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig might be going through
Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig’s exact whereabouts remain unknown, but Canadian officials can confirm one thing: he’s being held by Chinese authorities.
Kovrig, who has been working with the International Crisis Group in Beijing, disappeared on Dec. 10. He’s now being accused of endangering Chinese national security, according to a state-run news outlet.
His arrest comes in the midst of a diplomatic rift between Canada and China following the Dec. 1 arrest of high-profile Chinese citizen and Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
If there’s anyone who can relate to what Kovrig may be going through, it’s Kevin and Julia Garratt.
“I really didn’t expect that they would do it again. I thought, maybe, that out of our situation some good would have come,” Kevin told Global News in a Skype interview on Wednesday.
Originally from Vancouver, the Garratts lived and worked in China for 30 years. It’s where they raised their children, ran a business, owned a coffee shop and did volunteer work with Christian aid groups.
But one Monday night in August 2014, Chinese state security officials surrounded them as they left a restaurant in the city of Dandong where they lived, near the China-North Korea border, and whisked them away without warning. Julia would spend the next six months in detention; Kevin wouldn’t be free until a full two years after his arrest.
Kevin said the experience was “horrifying.”
“You know, when 18 or so security people grab you and take you back to the Ministry of State Security station, and then there, a bunch of them — probably eight or 10 of them — around you trying to get you to sign this paper saying: ‘I agree to be investigated,’ it’s pretty intimidating,” Kevin explained.
In an interview with Global News, the Garratts recalled having no understanding as to why state security would single them out.
But it was at the state security station that authorities began to accuse them of being spies.
“I kept saying: ‘You made a mistake. You have the wrong people,’” Julia said.
“We’re the least likely to be spies. We love this country, we love the people and we’ve been here for 30 years, serving together and partnering with Chinese people on all kinds of projects.”
But Julia quickly realized that it didn’t matter what she said to her interrogators.
She believes Kovrig may be prepared for the situation he’s in now, given his training as a diplomat, but the Garratts were “blindsided.”
“It was very traumatic for us,” she said. “Your body starts to go into shock. Your mind is just thinking about your children and your family and wondering: ‘They’re not going to know where I am.’”
The Garratts were held separately — in complete isolation, save the throngs of guards who watched over them.
“We had 50 to 60 guards just for the two of us so in that way, I guess, we were safe,” Kevin said.
“We were fed three meals a day but we had guards in our room,” he explained. “The lights were on 24-7. There’s nothing in your room. If you want a drink of water, they have to get it. If you want to brush your teeth, they have to go get your toothbrush for you.”
But when they weren’t locked away, the Garratts were being interrogated up to six hours a day, every day of the week.
“I had three men interrogating me for six hours a day. And that happened in the daytime, for the most part, seven days a week — continually,” Julia said, adding they were given “homework” on top of the rigorous questioning. “All sorts of confession-type papers.”
She said they were grilled on every “minute detail” on everything they did in China and everyone who visited them as their interrogators tried “to string it together into a story that looked much more like we were gathering information and passing it on to foreign agents, and therefore it was a spy story.”
But it was during the interrogations they began to sense there was something more to their detention — something that they now know parallels Kovrig’s situation today.
“Along the way, sometimes before a consular visit, they would say: ‘Tell your government to do more. They know what to do,’” Kevin recounted. “So there’s something more to this, but I have no idea what it is.”
That wasn’t the only clue.
“At one point, they made sort of a hostage video where they said: ‘Plead with your government to do more,’” Julia explained.
“We said: ‘More about what?’ And we couldn’t figure it out, and they wouldn’t tell us. They said: ‘Your government knows.’ So we started to kind of get clues that it wasn’t really about us, it was about something going on between the governments.”
Weeks before the Garratts’ arrest, Canada detained a Chinese citizen named Su Bin in Vancouver. Su, who held permanent residency in Canada and owned a home in Richmond, B.C., was wanted in the U.S. on accusations of conspiring to hack sensitive military information from defence contractors — including data on fighter jets and military transport aircraft.
He eventually pleaded guilty in March 2016, agreed to be extradited to the U.S. and was sentenced to 46 months in a U.S. federal prison.
It was not long after that time that the Garratts’ fortunes began to shift.
Julia was granted bail and released from custody in February 2015 but was unable to leave the country until August 2016, shortly before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travelled to China for the G20 summit.
Kevin, who had been moved to a prison after his first six months in detention, would have to wait until September of that year after a court ruled against him on charges of spying and stealing state secrets. Following the trial, he was deported back to Canada.
“It stole two years of our life and it didn’t solve the problem China wanted, either,” Julia said. “It seemed to be not a good solution, not a good diplomatic solution … it’s really sad that they’ve chosen to do it again.”
The Garratts said their ordeal has changed them, but it has also “opened up many new doors.”
“I think we’ve been able to help a lot of different kinds of people because we belong to a community of people who share a certain type of injustice,” Julia said, explaining the couple has “a deeper level of compassion” for people who have endured similar scenarios.
As for Kovrig, Kevin said: “It’ll be hard, but he can make it through; he really can.”
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