What’s it like to be jailed and tried in China? Ask those who’ve been through it

Click to play video: 'Next steps after trials end without a verdict for the two Michaels detained in China' Next steps after trials end without a verdict for the two Michaels detained in China
WATCH: (March 23, 2021) Nathan VanderKlippe, the Asia correspondent for the Globe and Mail, talks about what could come next after trials end for the two Michaels detained in China while the public awaits their verdict. – Mar 23, 2021

If you want to know what the two Michaels are enduring in China right now, just ask those who’ve been through it all before.

Vancouver’s Kevin and Julia Garrett were arrested and jailed in China back in 2014.

Kevin ended up spending more than two years in jail and was convicted on espionage charges after a one-day trial.

Their ordeal is eerily similar to what’s happening now to Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians arrested in China and recently tried on spying charges.

Kevin was even kept in the same jail and faced trial in the same courtroom as the two Michaels.

“We know what they’re going through,” he told me.

There’s little doubt about that.

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Read more: United States calls on China to ‘immediately release’ 2 detained Canadians

Kevin and Julia Garrett were recently married when they moved to China in 1984 to teach English.

Both devout Christians, they started doing outreach work and set up a series of businesses, including a coffee shop in a small Chinese city near the border with North Korea.

“We felt totally safe,” Julia Garratt told me, adding they fell in love with China over a period of 30 years living and working there.

But everything changed on the evening of Aug. 4, 2014.

After dinner with friends at a local hotel, they were seized by a large group of officials in the lobby.

“It was an abduction,” Kevin told me, adding he was taken back to the couple’s home, where police conducted a search.

“They ransacked our apartment,” he said. “They found a pair of binoculars that belonged to our children and said, ‘This is for spying!’ There was an old computer in a closet and they said, ‘You were trying to hide this!'”

The couple were taken to an out-of-town “black jail” where they were kept on separate floors.

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Julia said the only thing that kept her going were secret messages she received from Kevin.

“They would let us outside separately to walk around a courtyard for 15 minutes a day and I would see little hearts in the snow that Kevin had made with his boots. That helped a lot.”

Read more: Trudeau says no link between trials of detained Canadians, fresh sanctions on China

Julia was released after six months, but she was not allowed to leave the country. She said Chinese security officials followed her and warned her not to talk to the media.

“They said it would be very bad for Kevin if I talked to anyone.”

Kevin Garratt, meanwhile, was taken to a large prison and put into a cell with a dozen other inmates.

“The food came in through a slot in the door and I ate with other prisoners sitting around a plastic bowl.”

Kevin said he was not physically hurt during the ordeal, but he was repeatedly threatened.

“I was told I might be executed or sent to North Korea,” he said. “I wasn’t physically tortured, but I was forced to sleep on a wooden board with a thin cotton pad and the lights on 24 hours a day. There were guards and cameras watching constantly.”

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Finally, the day of his trial arrived. Kevin was taken in shackles to a courtroom where he faced a one-day trial on espionage charges. A poorly trained interpreter had difficulty explaining the “evidence” against him.

After another five months in jail, Kevin Garrett was officially pronounced guilty.

“I was sentenced to eight years in jail,” he said. “That was upsetting.”

It was only later that the Garretts discovered a parallel to the trauma being experienced right now by the two Michaels.

Read more: Michael Kovrig’s closed trial in China ends, with verdict due later

Spavor and Kovrig were arrested and charged in apparent retaliation against Canada after the arrest in Vancouver of Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant.

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Similarly, experts believe the Garratts were jailed to exert pressure on Canada after the arrest in Vancouver of Chinese businessman Su Binn, who was wanted by American investigators for alleged military espionage.

“It all seems very similar,” said Kevin Garrett, who was suddenly deported back to Canada after his conviction.

The Garretts were reunited in an emotional meeting at Vancouver International Airport in 2017.

“The door opened and Kevin walked in with this massive beard and a huge smile and everyone just rushed into his arms for a giant hug,” Julia recalled.

“You don’t ever want that moment to go away. You’re just so happy and so thankful and so grateful.”

Now the Garratts are hoping the families of the two Michaels get to experience a similar reunion.

“We hope their families have the same joy,” Julia Garratt said.

Based on their experience, though, they fear the ordeal of Kovrig and Spavor could drag on for some time to come.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.


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