BEIJING Chinese state media said on Thursday that a prominent Chinese rights activist had made up "fake news" of torture to grab international headlines, but his defenders said the accusations were a coordinated attempt to smear his name.
State media said disbarred lawyer Jiang Tianyong, 46, was behind news reports of police torturing another detained rights activist, Xie Yang, and that Jiang had later admitted to telling Xie's wife to make up details of torture in captivity to attract attention to the case.
Reports in January by the New York Times and the Guardian based on testimony from Xie's wife and lawyer described, in vivid detail, threats and violence from the police reportedly used to force a confession from Xie.
"The stories are essentially fake news," the official Xinhua news agency said in an English-language article.
The influential Global Times and a number of other state media outlets carried similar articles in Chinese on Thursday, each featuring an interview with Jiang, and many also included a photo of Xie with a shaved head, smiling, behind bars.
Jiang could not be reached for comment.
Chinese state media regularly features exposes of criminal activities by rights activists based on interviews where the accused confess their crimes. But rights groups say the questioning is usually scripted and carried out under duress.
The interviews with Jiang differed from the past in that they are the first time the phrase "fake news" has been used to describe media reports, "probably borrowing it from Donald Trump's attack on major Western media", says Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International.
Jiang's wife, Jin Bianling, told Reuters that the authorities merely wanted to discredit him because he received so much attention in the international media.
Jin and Jiang's parents have been unable to speak to Jiang since he went missing in November after visiting relatives of Xie Yang in the city of Changsha in central Hunan province.
"It's all fake. How are they all able to interview him when his family cannot meet him?" said Jiang's wife, who lives in the United States.
An individual who answered the phone at the Changsha Public Security Bureau declined to comment.
The European Union has cited Jiang's detention as reason for being "extremely troubled" by the "deteriorating" rights situation in China.
State media said Jiang convinced Xie's wife, Chen Guiqiu, in September to make up a detailed account of Xie being deprived of sleep, placed in smoke filled rooms and beaten so as to bring international attention to the case.
An "independent" investigation by legal authorities found Xie had not been tortured, state media said.
Xie's lawyer, Chen Jiangang, who is not related to Xie's wife, told Reuters the torture accounts were genuine, adding that he had also interviewed Xie and been told the same thing.
Chen could not be reached for comment.
(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Nick Macfie)