Police in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan "faked" documents to use against veteran rights website founder Huang Qi, according to a former police officer accused alongside him.
Huang, 56, stood trial earlier this month at the Mianyang Intermediate People's Court on charges of "leaking state secrets" and "leaking state secrets overseas," amid concerns that he could soon die in detention.
His co-defendant Chen Tianmao appealed two months ago based on allegations that the police faked documents to use as evidence in the case, RFA has learned, echoing the view of Huang's mother Pu Wenqing, who is now incommunicado, believed detained.
Chen, himself a former police officer, went public with his claims on Saturday, accusing Jiang Tian and two other officers in the Mianyang state security police of faking a report on his own compensation petition that was allegedly written by officials at his local neighborhood committee.
Chen also accused the police of torturing him, Huang and a third defendant, Yang Xiuqiong, in a bid to force a "confession" from them.
Chen became associated with Huang after the latter helped him pursue an official complaint for compensation for injuries suffered during a car accident in the course of his duties, after the local police department declined to make a payout.
Chen and fellow petitioner Yang Xiuqiong sent a copy of their petitioning materials -- which included the neighborhood committee 'report,' to Huang at the Tianwang rights website, which specialized in supporting petitioners, in April 2016.
He said the "report" bore no official letterhead or seal, and made no reference to any department that was supposed to have issued it.
Huang published photos of the document on the Tianwang website, and also gave an interview to Radio Free Asia on the case: these actions formed the basis of the case against him, Chen said.
"They made an illegal designation [that this was a secret documents]," Chen said in an interview on Monday. "This was all cooked up by the police department internally, and not by the bureau for the protection of state secrets at all."
"They did this to persecute us and to frame us for a miscarriage of justice," he said.
Enforced vacation on trial day
Chen said he has been warned off talking to anyone about the case since his release from custody since he contacted Huang's mother to offer to give evidence at his trial.
Instead, he was taken away by police on an enforced "vacation" to ensure he wasn't in town on Jan. 14, the day of the trial, he said.
"After I got out, they threatened me, and told me to write a confession, and a guarantee saying I wouldn't have any contact with Huang Qi's mother or lawyer, or anyone like that," Chen said. "They wanted to frame Huang Qi."
Guangxi-based rights lawyer Tan Yongpei said the authorities had broken the law many times already in prosecuting Huang's case.
"Chen Tianmao is blowing the whistle on the state security police, who control the court and the prosecutor's office," Tan said. "Basically, if the state security police say someone's guilty, then they're guilty."
But he said Chen's actions would likely make little difference to Huang.
"The [ruling] Chinese Communist Party pays no attention to the law when it comes to political cases," he said. "It won't make much difference even if he does report them."
Chen's defense attorney, who gave only his surname Lu, said Chen had lodged his appeal to the Sichuan Higher People's Court two months ago.
"The crime of leaking state secrets is usually used against servants of the state," Lu said. "There is no way around that."
"Only officials in a department that originates a document can be accused of leaking it."
In danger of dying in detention
Huang was recently identified by Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) as one of 10 citizen journalists in danger of dying in detention.
One of Huang's former defense attorneys, Liu Zhengqing, was warned off further involvement in Huang's case, lost his license to practice as a lawyer, and forced to sign a declaration to that effect.
Huang, who founded the Tianwang rights website, has repeatedly denied the charges and refused to "confess."
His mother Pu Wenqing, who has repeatedly called for Huang's release on urgent medical grounds, and who says the charges are politically motivated, with no evidence to back them up, has been incommunicado since her detention on Dec. 7 at a railway station in Beijing, where she had gone to campaign for his release.
Huang's Tianwang website had a strong track record for highlighting petitions and complaints against official wrongdoing, and injustices meted out to the most vulnerable in society, including forced evictees, parents of children who died in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and other peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Huang's mother Pu Wenqing, who is in her eighties, was stopped by "interceptors" from Sichuan during a trip to Beijing, where she was thrown to the ground and dragged away, the rights website Weiquanwang reported at the time.
Video footage of her detention showed Pu lying on the ground shouting: "They're beating me! They're beating me!" as the person shooting the video comments: "Huang's mother has been pushed to the ground by interceptors."
Huang won an RSF prize in 2016, was arrested on Nov. 28 of that year. Fourteen rights groups have called for his immediate release on urgent medical grounds, warning that his condition is so serious that there is an immediate threat to his life.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.