China is among the world's worst jailers of journalists, a Paris-based press freedom group has reported, as lawyers highlighted growing fears over the failing health of detained website editor Huang Qi.
"China continues to be the world’s biggest prison for journalists ... and continues to improve its arsenal of measures for persecuting journalists and bloggers," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its annual report for 2017.
"The government no longer sentences its opponents to death but instead deliberately lets their health deteriorate in prison until they die," it said, citing the cases of late Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and writer Yang Tianshui who both died in police custody of cancer earlier this year.
It said there are now growing concerns over the well-being of Huang Qi, the detained founding editor of the Tianwang rights website and winner of the RSF Press Freedom Prize in 2004.
"[Huang] is being subjected to beatings and denial of medical care in a Mianyang detention center in an attempt to force him to plead guilty," the report said.
Huang's defense attorney Sui Muqing confirmed the RSF account, adding that Huang had once more detailed beatings suffered at the hands of fellow inmates under the supervision of guards in the Mianyang Detention Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
"Huang Qi also told us about being beaten," Sui said after visiting his client earlier this week. "At the end of June, when the team investigating his case was forcing him to plead guilty, they gathered a bunch of 'elite' detainees, who were put in Interrogation Room 1001 along with Huang Qi."
"They included Chen Li, the former deputy director of the Mianyang municipal land and resources bureau ... leading to Huang Qi being beaten up for several days straight by Chen and the others," said Sui, following a three-hour conversation with Huang, who has refused to plead guilty.
'Supplying state secrets'
Huang was formally arrested by the state prosecution office in Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu in December 2016 on charges of "illegally supplying state secrets overseas."
He has been held in the police-run Mianyang Detention Center for nearly a year after the state prosecutor sent the case back to police for "further investigation" after finding insufficient evidence to proceed to trial.
His 83-year-old mother Pu Wenqing, who was hospitalized in December around the time of her son's arrest, told RFA that he suffers from radical glomerulonephritis, renal failure, and cerebral edema, but hasn't received any treatment.
Sui said that while Huang's treatment in the detention center has improved somewhat, he is in "alarmingly" poor health, with a creatinine level, a marker of kidney function, of 252.
Huang's case is expected to proceed to trial in January, Sui said, but dismissed the charges against his client.
"This is a typical instance of trumped-up charges," he said.
Huang's mother Pu Wenqing said the attacks on Huang were premeditated and planned by the detention center.
"They arranged for some people to beat Huang Qi really badly, causing serious injury and torture, which is one factor in the deterioration of his kidney function," she said.
"I call on the authorities to release Huang Qi immediately and unconditionally, and to pursue those responsible for the injustices against him."
Sichuan-based author Tan Zuoren, who has himself served time in prison for exposing corruption behind the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, accused the Mianyang police department of fabricating evidence and forcing a confession out of Huang.
"I think the authorities are still hoping to play him [by forcing a confession and guilty plea], but Sui Muqing is still planning to argue that he is not guilty, because there is no objective or material evidence," Tan said.
"And Huang Qi is still refusing to make a 'confession'," he said. "All Huang Qi ever did was help petitioners [lodge complaints against the government], which is in the public interest."
U.S.-based Chinese studies expert Xie Xuanjun said anyone working with news or information is facing growing curbs on their freedom.
"There is no freedom of the press in China, and controls are getting tighter and tighter," Xie said. "Journalists are increasingly facing charges of incitement to subvert state power and revealing state secrets, which can lead to life imprisonment or even the death penalty."
A total of 65 journalists, including professional journalists, citizen-journalists and media workers, were killed worldwide in 2017, according to RSF's report.
Of those, 39 were murdered, and were deliberately targeted because their reporting threatened political, economic, or criminal interests, it said.
"The aim in each case was to silence them," it said.
Reported by Wen Yuqing and Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long and Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.