Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan on Monday released rights lawyer Xie Yang on "bail" after he pleaded guilty at his subversion trial and backtracked on previous reports of his torture while in police detention.
Xie, 45, stood trial at the Changsha Intermediate People's Court on Monday, pleading guilty to charges of "incitement to subvert state power" and "disrupting court order."
"Xie told the court ... that he had not been coerced into a confession nor had he been subjected to torture," state news agency Xinhua reported, reflecting the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official version of events.
His defense attorney said he has since been released "on bail," although it was unclear whether he had fully regained his liberty.
Chen Jiangang, who was prevented from acting as his lawyer after publicizing his client's torture allegations, said Xie has now been released "on bail" after doing a deal with the authorities.
"I have received news from his government-appointed lawyer that Xie Yang has been released," Chen said. "After the trial, he was taken back to the detention center, where he was granted bail."
"They cut a deal," Chen said. "If you look at the statement he made right at the start, he emphasized this point very clearly, that [any confession] would be either because he was tortured, or because it was part of a deal [for his release]."
Xie's "admission" of guilt and his withdrawal of torture allegations were at odds with a handwritten declaration he made last year, in which he vowed never to "confess" willingly to charges he has always denied, rights activists said.
"I, Xie Yang ... hereby state that I am completely innocent of any and all the charges," the note, translated by the China Change website, said.
"If, one day in the future, I do confess—whether in writing or on camera or on tape—that will not be the true expression of my own mind," Xie wrote.
"It may be because I’ve been subjected to prolonged torture, or because I’ve been offered the chance to be released on bail to reunite with my family," the note, dated Jan. 13, 2016, said.
Xie told the court that he had "received training" in allegedly subversive behavior in Hong Kong and South Korea.
In court, Xie claimed to have been "brainwashed" by Western constitutional thinking with the aim of "overthrowing the existing system and developing Western constitutionalism in China," according to transcripts and video of the trial published on the court's official microblog account.
Xie was seen in a short video clip denying that he had been mistreated in custody, and reading a script that called on fellow rights lawyers to stop talking to foreign media.
"Everything I did went against my professional role as a lawyer," Xie said. "My actions smeared the Communist Party and the government, and had a very bad effect, and I would like to express my sincere guilt and regret for this."
He called on fellow rights lawyers to follow his example: "We should stop using foreign media ... to hype sensitive news events, attack judicial institutions, and smear the image of government departments when we are handling cases," Xie said.
Asked by the prosecutor about his detailed reports of torture in detention, Xie said: "No, I was not subjected to torture."
No trace of named groups
The court said Xie had provided the names of two organizations in Hong Kong which provided the "training." But Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK said it could find no trace of the organizations listed in the former British colony.
It said Xie had openly attacked and defamed governmental agencies, the judiciary, and China's legal system, and had incited others to subvert state power on multiple occasions, official media reported.
Xie had also "admitted" sending more than 10,000 social media messages as part of a smear campaign against the ruling Chinese Communist Party, China's legal system, and the political system, as well as "disturbing court order."
But Hunan rights activist Xie Fulin said he believes the confession was part of a deal with the authorities.
"Of course his guilty plea was under huge pressure, and I'm pretty sure that he has refused to confess ever since he was detained, especially now that his wife and kids are in the United States, and can't be used against him," Xie Fulin said. "I'm pretty sure they forced him into it."
Xie was among dozens of rights lawyers, activists, and law firm staff detained during a nationwide crackdown on the legal profession beginning in July 2015.
An international group of lawyers and judges last week called on Beijing to release Xie immediately, saying that he was arrested and charged for "performing legitimate professional functions" as a human rights lawyer.
Pattern of harassment
Meanwhile, the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights said on Friday that it was "deeply troubled" by last Wednesday's detention of Chen Jiangang, a vocal civil rights defender, and his family during a vacation.
"We are dismayed by this continuing pattern of harassment of lawyers, through continued detention, without full due process guarantees and with alleged exposure to ill-treatment," the office said in a statement.
Chen, who helped to expose Xie's report of torture, was detained by China's state security police on Friday after going "missing" alongside his wife Zou Shaomei and the couple's two sons during a family trip to the southwestern province of Yunnan.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang hit out at the United Nations for its criticism of the nationwide crackdown on lawyers, saying its statement on Friday "disregards objectivity and constitutes an interference in China domestic affairs and judicial sovereignty".
Incitement to subvert state power carries a maximum jail term of five years in less serious cases, and a minimum jail term of five years in cases deemed more serious, including where the suspect is regarded as a ringleader or a repeat offender.
Jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is currently serving a 13-year sentence on the same charge.
Reported by Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.