VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – The son of a Canadian couple detained in China over spying allegations said Tuesday his parents did not attempt to obtain military secrets and have been caught instead by the increasingly tense relations between Ottawa and Beijing.
Simeon Garratt also said his parents, who have lived in China for 30 years, did not try to convert local Chinese to Christianity or send missionaries or converts into North Korea.
Garratt said the arrest of his parents, Kevin Garratt, 54, and Julia Dawn Garratt, 53, is “pretty absurd,” because they have lived as open Christians in China for years without any trouble. The parents have run a coffee shop in Dandong, near the North Korea border, since 2008.
“I think there is some sort of political play going on here and my parents happen to be caught in the middle of it,” said Garratt, 27, looking tired and red-eyed outside his apartment in Vancouver. “They just happen to be Christian people who have an affinity for China and North Korea.”
China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the State Security Bureau of the city of Dandong in northeast Liaoning province was investigating the Garratts, adding that the case involves the stealing of state secrets.
The investigation into the Garratts comes a week after Canada took the unusual step of singling out Chinese hackers for attacking a key computer network and lodged a protest with Beijing.
Simeon Garratt said his parents and brother, Peter Garratt, who also lives in Dandong, have had no past problems with authorities in China and regularly deal with the government to renew their visas and file official paperwork.
“My mom does some teaching at the university there, and through that they do what are called ‘English corners’ every Friday at the coffee shop where hundreds of Chinese locals come out and learn about North America,” he said.
The Garratts have four children, including Simeon, who grew up in China but returned to live in Canada in 2010. He said his brother, Peter, has met with authorities in Dandong.
“I think (Peter) is fine, I’ve talked to him quite a bit,” Simeon Garratt said. “He went in and talked to the Chinese authorities, who are letting him know that my parents are being detained, held in an undisclosed location, and he should make sure he gets rest and sleep and try not to worry too much.”
His father, Kevin, started a human rights nongovernmental organization to do aid work inside North Korea, and travels there regularly, Simeon Garratt said.
In an audio file posted on the website of the Canada-based Terra Nova Church, Kevin Garratt said he ran a prayer and training facility outside Dandong that was frequented by North Koreans, many of whom converted to Christianity before re-entering their isolated country.
Those claims, which could not be independently verified, were likely to cause consternation in North Korea, a secretive country where religion is banned and proselytizing is severely punished.
Simeon Garratt said he knew nothing about the audio file, dated Nov. 3, 2013, and which has since been removed from the Terra Nova website, along with all sermons. He said his father had been in Vancouver last November.
“The human aid work — obviously, Christian nature may play into that a bit. But it is not directly a Christian thing that they are doing,” he said. “They are just sending in 100 or 200 tons of oil, or grain and rice, small ovens, things that people can use.
“There are hundreds and thousands of people that are starving, dying, in North Korea and that is just one thing where they are trying to do their part.”
Simeon Garratt said Canadian officials in Ottawa and Beijing are trying to make contact with the couple but have warned that a resolution may take weeks or months.
China’s state secrets law is notoriously broad, covering everything from industry data to the exact birthdates of state leaders. Information can also be labeled a state secret retroactively. In severe cases, the theft of state secrets is punishable with life in prison or the death penalty.
“I’m definitely worried — more about the time frame of how long these kind of things can get dragged out, and the situation that may parents are in, than (about) the actual allegations,” Simeon Garratt said.