An American woman who was arrested while on a business trip in China and later convicted of spying has been deported to the United States.
A senior State Department official confirmed that American officials were aware of the move. "The United States welcomes her home," the official told NBC News.
Phan "Sandy" Phan-Gillis had faced an uncertain fate since March 2015, when she disappeared from her group traveling in southern China. She was later accused of espionage, which carries a possible death sentence.
It was just Tuesday when Phan-Gillis, a U.S. citizen of Chinese descent, was sentenced by Chinese authorities to 3 ½ years in prison. But the sentence was seen as an indication that she soon could be allowed to return home.
Officers from the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China, had visited Phan-Gillis on a monthly basis since she was detained on March 20, 2015, most recently meeting with her on April 10 of this year, a State Department official told NBC News.
"We regularly raised Ms. Phan-Gillis' case with Chinese officials, including at the most senior levels," the official said before declining to discuss the specific nature of the conversations.
Jeff Gillis says his wife got on a flight to Los Angeles on Friday evening. The couple planned to stay in Los Angeles a few days to visit relatives before returning to their Houston home.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in a statement that Phan had been visiting China in 2015 "to strengthen commercial and cultural exchanges on behalf of the city of Houston."
"The Chinese government — cynically and to the astonishment of many — perceived this cultural bridge-builder as a threat," he said. "Sandy was unjustly deprived of her liberty for two years, time during which she was denied basic legal protections and her loved ones lacked accurate information about her condition."
Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn also welcomed her return.
“I’m relieved that Sandy Phan-Gillis has been released and will soon be reunited with her loved ones in Houston,” he said in a statement. “The unlawful detention of an American citizen for more than two years with little to no explanation by Chinese authorities is shameful and unacceptable.”