Breaking his silence for the first time since his arrest five months ago, ethnic minority Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti told his lawyers Thursday that he was shackled and deprived of food and adequate water while in prison.
At his first meeting with lawyers Li Fangping and Wang Yu since his January arrest, Tohti also flatly rejected charges of separatism leveled at him by the Chinese authorities.
He said he was denied food and given one and a half glasses of water for 10 days in March in an apparent punishment for failing to cooperate with the authorities.
"He was denied food; the detention center cut off his rations of food and water," Wang Yu told RFA after the six-hour meeting in a detention center in northwestern China's Xinjiang region. "Ilham Tohti survived for 10 days on just one and a half glasses of water," she said.
Wang said Tohti, a long-time advocate of Uyghur rights and outspoken critic of Chinese policies in the Xinjiang region, has continually rejected the charges of separatism leveled against him.
"To judge from what he said, he shouldn't plead guilty to them. He doesn't support violent separatism, nor separatism in general. He is in favor of national and ethnic unity," she said.
Tohti, an economics professor at The Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, was dragged away from his home in the Chinese capital by dozens of police on Jan. 15, and formally arrested on Feb. 20 on separatism charges.
Human rights groups have said that Tohti's detention is part of Beijing's broad strategy to drown the voices of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, who call Xinjiang their homeland.
It also underscores Beijing's increasing hard-line stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang, where Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
During his initial days in detention, Tohti had staged a 10-day hunger strike in protest against food served to him that didn't follow Islamic dietary laws.
After a deadly attack at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming in March, which the government blamed on separatist Uyghur militants from Xinjiang, Chinese authorities denied Tohti food for another eight days.
"For eight days he didn't eat anything. He lost 16 kilograms [35 pounds]," Li was quoted saying by Reuters news agency.
"On the tenth day he was given a bun. Restricting his food constitutes a form of abuse," Li said, adding that he had worries about Tohti's physical condition and that his state of mind was "very anxious".
"He is very persistent. He has always maintained his innocence," Li said, according to Reuters.
Wang told RFA she and Li would ask the detention center to send Tohti for a full medical check-up amid concerns over his health.
Tohti's university stopped paying his salary last month, leaving his wife Guzelnur and their two young sons little to survive on as they struggle to cope with his disappearance.
His family has not been allowed to see him so far.
Guzelnur said Li had contacted her after meeting his client on Thursday.
"He's doing OK. Ilham's health isn't too bad right now, but [lawyer Li Fangping] didn't want to say too much over the phone," she told RFA.
Sources close to the case told RFA that Tohti could face a jail term of 8-10 years under the separatism charges, and that the details of his trial and sentence are still under negotiation.
"The trial is likely to take place after the July 5 anniversary," the source said, referring to the July 5, 2009 violence in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi in which some 200 people died and 1,700 were injured in clashes between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese, according to official figures.
Committing the state security crime of "separatism" can result in the death penalty in China while the lesser crime of "inciting separatism" carries penalties ranging from less than five years to 15 years maximum.
Li said that despite being placed in leg irons for 20 days when he was first detained and after months of incommunicado detention, the 44-year-old Tohti had maintained his innocence, the Associated Press reported.
Li said, however, that Tohti was not being beaten by interrogators—a concern that many of his supporters had raised.
Tohti's case comes amid tensions following a spate of deadly attacks in Xinjiang where authorities declared a one-year crackdown on "violent terrorist activities" last month following a May 22 bombing at a market in Urumqi that killed 43 people, including the four attackers.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, Hai Nan for the Cantonese, and the Uyghur Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie and Jennifer Chou. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Luisetta Mudie.