China charges Canadian national with espionage: Official

BEIJING (AFP) - China has charged a Canadian citizen with spying and stealing state secrets, the government said on Friday (Jan 29).

Kevin Garratt was detained in 2014 along with his wife, who was later released on bail, in the north-eastern Chinese city of Dandong, on the border with North Korea.

"The Canadian citizen Kevin Garratt, suspected of spying and stealing Chinese state secrets, has been indicted," Ms Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, said at a regular briefing in Beijing.

"During the investigation, authorities found that Kevin Garratt may also be involved in gathering information for Canadian information agencies."

Before their arrests Garratt and his wife, both Christians, had run a coffee shop in Dandong and been active in helping send humanitarian aid to impoverished North Korea.

In 2013 he told a church in Surrey, British Columbia: "God said, in a prayer meeting, go to Dandong and I'll meet you there, and he said start a coffee house.

"We're trying to reach North Korea with God, with Jesus, and practical assistance." Garratt's parents have said he was arrested because of his religion. China regularly cracks down on a wide variety of religious expression.

Beijing denied the case was religiously motivated.

"He was indicted because of spying and stealing Chinese state secrets, it has nothing to do with his religion," Ms Hua said.

China's definition of state secrets can be very broad while North Korea is deeply suspicious of Christian proselytising activities, punishing them harshly.

The Garratts were detained one week after Canada accused China of hacking, prompting accusations that Beijing was investigating them as retaliation against Ottawa.

China passed a new "national security" law in July that was criticised by rights groups for the vague wording of its references to "security", which raised fears it could give police wide-ranging discretionary powers over civil society.

Other foreign citizens have also run afoul of China's powerful security officials.

Earlier this month Swedish activist Peter Dahlin was held on suspicion of endangering national security, apparently caught up in a crackdown on human rights lawyers. He was deported earlier this week.

Feng Xue, a Chinese-born US geologist, spent more than seven years in a Chinese prison after being convicted on state secrets charges.

Australian national Stern Hu, an executive with the mining giant Rio Tinto, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2010 on bribery and trade secrets charges.