Authorities in China's southern province of Hainan have handed a three-year suspended jail term to a former forestry official who led a campaign against a coal-fired power station, shortly after work began on the project, villagers said on Thursday.
Liu Futang, 64, who has been detained since July, was convicted of "conducting illegal business" after he wrote and self-published a book about local opposition to the planned Yinggehai power plant project in the southwest of Hainan Island.
Journalist Cao Guoxing, who has followed Liu's case closely and who spoke to the family after the sentencing, said Liu was now at home following his release on Wednesday after the sentencing.
"It's good that he received a suspended sentence," Cao said. "The charges should never have been laid in the first place."
He said Liu had likely received a lenient sentence as a former respected forestry official who had backing from within the system.
"I'm sure they wanted to save him some face," Cao said. "But the situation had gotten so out of hand that the Hainan authorities were bound to take a hard line."
Liu has been a vocal critic of the estimated 1.9 billion yuan (U.S. $301 million) nationally commissioned power station, which was opposed by thousands of residents of Yinggehai township in Hainan's Ledong county during a consultation exercise at the beginning of the year.
A veteran member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and former director of Hainan's forest fire prevention office, Liu dared to challenge central government directives and angered local officials for investigating residents' opposition to the power plant.
Cao said that prison would have been an unthinkable outcome for Liu, whose health is poor.
"I have interviewed his family, and they said he is in very poor health," he said.
Meanwhile, Yinggehai residents and officials said construction work had already begun on the plant.
"They are building the perimeter wall," said an employee who answered the phone on Thursday at the Yinggehai township government offices.
"I don't know if they will go ahead with the ground-breaking ceremony; they are building the wall first, at any rate," he said.
"[The site is] about one kilometer [half a mile] from the coast," the official said.
A Yinggehai resident who asked to remain anonymous said work had started at the site at the administrative boundary between Yinggehai and neighboring Foluo township "in the past few days."
Fear of reprisal
But he said local opposition to the plant was now muted by fear of official reprisals.
"Who dares do anything now?" he said, asked if the villagers had reacted to the beginning of construction on the project. "There's nothing to be done...if you make a fuss they just put you down."
Hainan authorities have changed their minds several times about the location of the plant since January, when it met with fierce opposition from residents of Yinggehai, who clashed with police on a number of occasions.
The planned site then moved to Foluo and Huangliu townships in the same county, meeting with similar resistance there earlier this year.
When protests against the plant escalated in Foluo township in April, one website reported residents had stormed a government building and smashed up offices and dormitories.
Residents reported dozens of injuries from beatings and tear gas at the hands of riot police amid clashes sparked by a number of earlier arrests over opposition to the project.
The government said in October that the project, which was initially proposed in 2007 but only approved last November, would go ahead in Yinggehai as previously planned.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.