By Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised on Wednesday that a Canadian man held in China for two years on suspicion of spying would be treated humanely and lawfully, but the man’s family expressed frustration and called for his release.
China indicted Canadian citizen Kevin Garratt in January on charges of spying and stealing state secrets. He was detained in August 2014 near China’s sensitive border with reclusive North Korea.
Asked about Garratt, Li told a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Beijing that China and Canada would continue to communicate on the issue.
“As for the individual case you have raised, I want to say that China is a country with rule of law and our judicial authorities will handle it in strict accordance with the law, and give the relevant case humane treatment,” Li said in rare public comments by a top Chinese leader on such a touchy issue.
With Trudeau by his side, Li said China would grant consular access in such cases if they involved foreigners.
“For these cases, the departments of both sides will continue to remain in touch and we believe it’s essential for our two countries to remove disturbances and work together to uphold the other interests of China-Canada relations.”
Garratt’s family said in a statement released by their Beijing-based lawyers they were “extremely frustrated and disappointed” by the lack of progress in securing his release.
The family “implores the Canadian and Chinese leadership to set aside their differences and reach a resolution to allow Kevin to exit China and obtain critically needed medical treatment and to return to his family”, they said.
“We appreciate the fact that both governments recognize Kevin’s fragile medical condition and that his further incarceration would be detrimental to his health.”
Trudeau did not provide details on his talks with Li about Garratt.
“The foundation of a strong relationship is being able to be frank and open about concerns, questions and issues to work on together,” he said.
“That’s part of why every time I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with the Chinese leadership I’ve highlighted a number of consular cases, including the Kevin Garratt case, and I continue to look forward to collaborating closely on these issues,” Trudeau said, without elaborating.
Chinese state media said in January that Garratt had been indicted in Dandong, a city in China’s northeast right on the border with North Korea, where the Garratts had operated a Christian coffee shop since 2008.
State media says Chinese authorities had found evidence that Garratt worked with Canadian espionage agencies to gather intelligence in China.
China strictly regulates religious activities within its borders but China’s Foreign Ministry says the case has nothing to do with Garratt’s faith.
(Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Paul Tait)