Claims by official Chinese media that allegations of torture meted out to jailed human rights lawyer Xie Yang were "fake news" cooked up to appeal to "Western media tastes" were rejected by his defense lawyer on Thursday.
The Global Times newspaper on Monday published a report saying it had interviewed Xie's former attorney, detained rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who had "admitted" to making up the torture claims.
The Global Times quoted Jiang Tianyong, whose detention in an unknown location earlier this year sparked fears of mistreatment among his family, friends and colleagues, as saying that he had coached Chen to exaggerate the reports when writing them up after meetings with Xie.
"To make those reports more convincing, I told Chen how to write them: if some policemen smoke at nights, the story would be written like 'Xie being fumigated by police,'" Jiang was quoted as saying.
But defense attorney Chen Jiangang said the descriptions of Xie's account of torture in a police-run detention center in the central province of Hunan were "totally accurate."
Xie has lodged a formal complaint saying that he was subjected to confinement in a "hanging chair" made of plastic chairs stacked high above the ground for hours at a time, so that his legs swelled up and he was in excruciating pain.
He was also deprived of sleep and repeatedly beaten, humiliated, and taunted with death threats against his family, according to his lawyers' notes.
"He told me himself," Chen said. "I stand by every word that is written in the two transcripts [of lawyers' conversations with Xie]."
"He was beaten, had smoke blown in his eyes and mouth. He was placed in the hanging chair and not given any water to drink and interrogated for very long periods at a time," he said.
"They deprived him of sleep, which was the worst suffering of all."
Questionable standards at newspaper
Asked if Xie was severely beaten, Chen said: "Yes, he was," adding: "They wouldn't give him enough to eat ... but then they wouldn't allow him to buy [extra food] either."
"This [article] is just more fakery and lies of the kind that we have seen all along from the powerful official media of an authoritarian regime where you can't read the truth, only propaganda," he said.
Chen said he didn't blame Jiang for the "interview" with the Global Times, which he thought was unlikely to be genuine.
"He wasn't giving an interview; he was putting on a show, because he is afraid that he will also be tortured if he doesn't," Chen said, saying that Jiang had likely already been tortured.
He added: "I am in a very dangerous situation right now, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried [for my own safety]," he said. "They don't want me to represent this case any more and I could be detained at any time."
Meanwhile, lawyers acting for Jiang Tianyong said they have been refused permission on three occasions to meet with their client since his disappearance on Nov. 21 on the grounds that such meetings could endanger national security.
"We are concerned about whether there is any legal basis for allowing Global Times journalists, whose credibility and trustworthiness are questionable, to meet Jiang Tianyong while denying lawyers’ access," lawyers Chen Jinxue and Qin Chenshou said in a statement published in response to the Global Times article.
"There is no law granting a greater priority to so-called journalists or unrelated parties than to lawyers to see their client," the statement said. "This is a typical act of the government abusing its power."
Media controlled by or friendly to China raised eyebrows last August, when they aired a series of televised "confessions" made by detained human rights lawyer Wang Yu and by Hong Kong booksellers detained by Chinese police for selling "banned books" to customers inside China in which the detainees voiced implausible confessions of wrongdoing.
Abused in custody
The lawyers' statement said the newspaper was humiliating Jiang and Xie by subjecting them to a trial by media, and vowed to lodge a formal complaint over the incident.
"There is every reason to believe that Xie Yang and Jiang Tianyong have been abused in custody, and the lengthy denial of visitation by their lawyers or family members simply adds to reasonable suspicions that the two have in fact been tortured," the lawyers said.
Jiang's U.S.-based wife Jin Bianling told RFA she is also very concerned for her husband's well-being, and plans to sue for libel on his behalf.
"I am now more convinced than ever that Jiang Tianyong has himself been subjected to torture, and I don't believe that any of what he said was genuine," she said.
"If they want to prove that Jiang Tianyong hasn't been tortured, then they should allow his lawyers to visit him," she said. "The next step will be to instruct my lawyers to sue the media that has smeared [him]."
U.S.-based legal scholar Chen Guangcheng said China had tried to hit back against the allegations of torture, because it damaged its international image in the wake of a nationwide crackdown targeting hundreds of lawyers.
"The broader background to this is that the torture carried out by the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party has caught global attention," he said.
"They are trying ... to turn a bad situation to their own benefit."
Initially detained on July 11, 2015 as part of a nationwide police operation targeting human rights lawyers, Xie was held under "residential surveillance at a designated location" in a government guesthouse belonging to the National University of Defense Technology in Hunan's provincial capital, Changsha.
Subjected to abuse including deprivation of food and water, Xie was tortured again after being moved to the police-run Changsha No. 2 Detention Center following his formal arrest on Jan. 9, 2016, according to his lawyers' notes.
He is currently awaiting a trial date, and faces charges of "incitement to disrupt public order and subvert state power."
Reported by Wong Lok-to, Lee Lai and Ng Yik-tung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.