During the fifth month of her wrongful imprisonment in a tiny, perpetually lit jail cell in China, Julia Garratt scribbled in her Bible that she was feeling hopelessness and was longing for heaven.
Julia and her husband, Kevin Garratt, had spent 30 years in China as teachers, entrepreneurs and Christian aid workers. Then, in 2014, they were accused by the Chinese government of being spies, in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a Chinese businessman. Julia spent six months in jail; Kevin was locked up for nearly two years.
Since then, relations between China and Canada have grown even more tense, with Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December. Today, China is impeding the import of Canadian goods and there are several high-profile cases of Canadians languishing in Chinese jails.
Businessman Michael Spavor and ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig were jailed in China on Dec. 10, and experts believe it was to even the score after Meng’s arrest.
The Garratts — who share a similar story because it is now known they were seized in retaliation for a Chinese businessman’s arrest in Vancouver — have a unique perspective on how Spavor and Kovrig may be feeling five months into their captivity.
While incarcerated, the Garratts kept up their spirits by reading the Bible and writing inspirational thoughts, but also fought off despair — especially as time wore on, as it has for Spavor and Kovrig, who have now been imprisoned for 145 days.
“’If this is my new life, am I going to give up or am I going to somehow live it in here?’ I think those are the questions (we) wrestled with in an ongoing way, especially in month 4 and month 5. Because you never know what is coming the next day,” Julia said during an interview in New Westminster, where the couple now lives.
“Now that it is happening to (Spavor and Kovrig), I can totally relate to what they must be feeling and going through,” added Kevin.
Meng, who was arrested in Vancouver at the request of the U.S. government, is free on bail while waiting an extradition hearing, which could send her to the U.S. to face accusations of violating trade sanctions on Iran.
“China is likely to hold on to (Spavor and Kovrig) until Meng is released. This is the sad reality,” said Yves Tiberghien, a UBC political science professor and executive director of the UBC China Council.
It is unfortunate that Canada arrested Meng, he said in an email to Postmedia, arguing this country “became a pawn” when it detained the executive on behalf of the U.S. “(But) this point cannot excuse China’s arrest of the two Michaels and their harsh conditions. The whole situation is very unfortunate and painful.”
The men, who have been accused of stealing Chinese state secrets but have not been charged, are kept in isolation with little contact with the outside world and in cells with the lights constantly on, which some experts say is equivalent to torture.
Tiberghien believes China’s recent clampdown on importing Canadian canola seed was also in retaliation for Meng’s arrest. “It is unfortunate that such further escalation took place,” he said.
The diplomatic dispute worsened this week, with Canadian sellers of soybeans, peas and pork hitting obstacles at Chinese ports and with a second Canadian on death row for drug crimes — a sentence Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called “cruel and inhumane.”
Two former ambassadors to Beijing are urging Canada to take a harder stand against China but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters this week he had no plans to retaliate, saying his government is working for resolutions.
Today, the Garratts are saddened to see other Canadians face fear and uncertainty behind bars in China.
“There is such a human cost to all these political things. And after all the dialogue that happened back and forth between our countries over our case, I was so disappointed that another similar case erupted,” Julia said. “I was really hoping that wouldn’t happen, that (we) would have paved a new pathway to another solution to some of these political problems.”
As they reflect on their imprisonment with a remarkable lack of bitterness, the couple would like their survival and eventual release to provide encouragement to those in a similar situation.
“We would say, ‘You have to hold on to hope,’” Kevin said. “I’m hoping that maybe we offer a little bit of hope that you can get through it, although it is incredibly difficult.”
In 1984, after graduating from university in Ontario, newlyweds Julia and Kevin Garratt went to China for a “big adventure,” planning to teach English there for a year. Instead, they stayed for three decades.
“We just loved it,” Kevin said.
They thought China was a good fit for their passions for teaching, starting new businesses and providing aid to needy people.
They taught at universities, developed a model kindergarten and started a small NGO that helped to expand an orphanage.
In 2007, the Garratts, who had three children and adopted a fourth while living in China, moved to Dandong, a large city on the border with North Korea.
While Julia taught at the local university, the family opened a popular coffee shop that offered English-speaking nights, business dinners and talent shows.
By 2014, three of the Garratts’ grown children were studying or working in Canada, while the fourth was in university in China.
Nothing seemed amiss until that August.
When a mutual friend asked them to have dinner with a couple whose daughter was going to the University of Toronto, the Garratts’ alma mater, they agreed. When they arrived at the restaurant, the other couple said their daughter had a toothache and could not come.
“But we weren’t thinking anything sinister about it because they were friendly and nice,” Julia said.
After dinner, the Garratts rode the elevator to the lobby. When the doors opened, the lobby was packed with people with cameras, and Julia told Kevin they should leave through a side door because it must be a wedding or other event.
“But it wasn’t an event. It was an abduction,” Kevin said.
“I thought, ‘They’ve made a mistake. They’ve taken the wrong people,’” Julia recalled. “In an instant, everything changed.”
The husband and wife were taken out different doors and into waiting cars. The couple would later learn the officers who snatched them worked for the Chinese ministry of state security, which is responsible for counter-intelligence and political security.
Speaking in Mandarin, Julia asked one guard what was happening.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re safe.’ I was thinking, ‘I’m not safe,’” Julia recalled. “You have a part of your brain that is panicking and a part of your brain that is praying.”
They drove Julia to a police station and examined everything in her briefcase, from teaching documents to paper clips. It took her a long time to understand she was accused of espionage because she hadn’t learned that word in Mandarin.
She was shocked but believed they would quickly realize they had the wrong person. It was when they ordered her back into the car that she became terrified. “At this point you think: ‘China has become extremely unpredictable. I have no idea what they are going to do next.’”
Kevin was in another room, surrounded by eight or 10 “intimidating” officers with cameras.
“They’re saying we think you’re spies, and I’m thinking, ‘How can you think that?’” he said. “After quite some time, I heard Julia crying, screaming down the hallway.”
His frantic wife was yelling, “We just came to help.”
Shaken, Kevin signed a document that gave the police permission to investigate him. He had no idea what would come next or why.
The couple had never heard of Su Bin, a Chinese businessman arrested in B.C. in July 2014. Bin was arrested at the request of the United States, where he was wanted for hacking the data bases of American defence contractors to steal military secrets. One month later, the Garratts were arrested by China.
“When we were released, then I was told the reason we were taken is because Canada arrested Su Bin here in Vancouver, and China wanted to trade us for him, and that didn’t work out because he was later extradited to the U.S., and China was stuck with us,” Kevin said in a recent interview.
After being dragged out of the police station, a terrified Julia was driven for an hour to an unknown destination.
“I thought, OK this might be my last night.” she recalled. “When I was going out in the middle of nowhere, I started worrying about my family, my parents, my son, because I thought this is one of those China-makes-you-disappear things.”
Kevin was taken to the couple’s rented apartment, where he watched 18 officers ransack the place. They tore the sockets out of the wall, pulled photos out of their frames, and cut open a pillar in the middle of the room. They found no evidence of espionage.
At 5 a.m., the officers told Kevin to gather some clothes. He also grabbed his and Julia’s Bibles, which would become a lifeline for the religious couple during their months of isolation.
For the next 775 days, Kevin existed in a grim room where he ate meagre meals and endured hours of daily interrogation, with only occasional visits from Canadian embassy staff or his lawyer.
“There were 14 people in my cell. And the cell was not very big. So basically the beds were all together and there was a small aisle down the middle and a washroom in the corner,” he said. “There was absolutely no privacy.”
Julia’s tiny cell, where the lights were on 24/7 and she was under the eyes of two guards, was in the same facility as Kevin’s, but she didn’t know that.
“They wouldn’t give me any information about whether Kevin was alive or dead,” she said.
Seconds felt like minutes, minutes like hours.
Besides 15 minutes of outdoor time in the dark, she left her cell only to walk a few steps to an interrogation room, where she faced six hours a day of questioning.
The words in their Bibles sustained them. For Kevin, it was Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good.”
“At times I don’t think I could see how this was going to work for good, but you think: God, I have to trust you,” Kevin recalled. “Hopelessness and hope, they battle within you.”
Julia created a calendar in the front of her Bible and every day drew a picture of something for which she was thankful, like the time the guards replaced her heavy curtains with opaque plastic when she begged for sunlight, and then cut off a top layer of the plastic when she begged to see the clouds.
“If I focused on some of the kindnesses, it really helped me in the interrogations.”
There were also dark days, which she’d mark in her “Daily Thanks” calendar with a sign for sleeping as she tried to make it through by staying in bed. “There were times I couldn’t peel myself off the floor because of the overwhelming loneliness.”
In her Bible, which also became her diary, Julia wrote about her feelings. In month 1, she remained optimistic, writing she was innocent and safe. In month 2, she expressed surprising compassion for her female guards, who were ordered to spend day after day with her in that tiny room. By month 3, she said, “the human part of you starts to despair.” In month 4 came anger and feelings of guilt over family and friends left with little information.
In month 6, when she describes leaning on God to get through the day, Julia was released on house arrest, but still endured daily interrogations while awaiting a trial on charges that would eventually be dropped. She was allowed to visit Kevin only once, when Canadian embassy staff told her his health was deteriorating.
“My next meal will either be with Julia or Jesus,” Kevin told the embassy workers.
“They really panicked because it sounded like he was very much giving up,” recalled Julia, who fought hard to visit her ailing husband.
“I walked into that room and saw Kevin in handcuffs and he’d lost a lot of weight, and he looked extremely pale as if he was not going to be able to survive. … It was very very difficult to see him because I couldn’t do anything to help him,” she said. “I gave him messages from our family to encourage him. And said people haven’t forgotten you.”
The visit helped immensely, Kevin said. “You go back to the same cell, but you hold on to that hope that it’s going to be OK. But you just don’t know when.”
In April 2016, Kevin was found guilty of being a spy, and that September was handed an eight-year prison term. Two days after his sentencing, he was suddenly deported to Canada — to his family and to freedom.
“I think it takes some time to feel, if you want to call it, “normal’ again. But I think really from day 1 of being released and being back together, we were happy and grateful for so many people who helped us,” Kevin said.
The couple, who continue to do aid work overseas, saw a psychologist and were careful about their integration back into society. But just enjoying regular life has been cathartic, said Julia.
“All of a sudden, the sky is amazing, food is amazing, everything you appreciate in a different way. So that kind of joy has incredible healing power also,” she said.
They just wish history wasn’t repeating itself.
“We feel sadness that this is happening again,” said Julia. “As far as we know, (Spavor and Kovrig) didn’t do anything. But they are being held in probably a very similar situation to what we were.
“We would say to them: You have to hold on to hope.”
Postmedia asked Global Affairs Canada for updates on the cases of several Canadians being detained in China. This information was provided Wednesday:
Ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor
Arrested Dec. 10, presumably in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Hauwei executive Meng Wanzhou.
• Canada continues to call for their immediate release and has raised concerns with Chinese authorities.
Richmond winery owners John Chang and Allison Lu
Arrested March 2016 in China, for allegedly under-reporting the value of the wine they export to China.
• Canada is “closely following the case.”
Arrested in 2014 for drug-related charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison in November 2018. A new trial on more serious charges was ordered after Meng’s arrest and in January he was sentenced to death.
• Canada is concerned China has “arbitrarily” applied the death penalty, has sought clemency for Schellenberg, and has asked Chinese authorities to ensure his appeal of the sentence is “fair and transparent.”
Sentenced to death this week for his role in a methamphetamine ring.
• Canada has asked China to grant clemency to Fan, calling his sentence “cruel and inhumane.”
Source: Global Affairs Canada