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WASHINGTON, Nov. 7, 2003�Farmers in China's southern province of Guangdong have asked a local court to force the Xinxing County government to return land they say it seized improperly, RFA's Cantonese service reports.

Some 50 farmers attended a two-hour trial Wednesday at Yunfu District Court, according to sources who asked not to be named. The 30 plaintiffs are seeking only the return of their land without punitive damages, the sources said.

"We asked the county officials to show the court any legal documents allowing them to take the land away from us. They said they had none," one plaintiff said in an interview. A single county legal official testified for the defense but failed to specify for what purpose the land was to be used.

Repeated phone calls to county offices during business hours went unanswered during the week. The plaintiffs said it was unclear when the court might reach a verdict in the case, and court officials couldn't be reached for comment.

County officials, accompanied by police, arrived at the land in question in Ding and Daoji villages before dawn on Aug. 15, with bulldozers, residents said in separate interviews.

When a group of farmers tried to block the bulldozers, the chief of local police pushed one of them, 58-year-old Sun Zhicai, into a pond, witness said. Sun died in hospital several hours later after what officials described as a heart attack, although an autopsy found five of his ribs had been broken.

"The government said he was too excited, so had a heart attack," one man said in an interview. "But our peasants saw him struck down by a police stick and pushed down to a pond where he died instantly."

Sun's relatives and other farmers then carried his body to demonstrate in front of the county government building and demand proof of the county's legal authority to bulldoze and reclaim their land. No government representative came to meet with them, and police arrested five of the protesters�including two of Sun's brothers.

According to one source, Sun's brothers were held for a month and then released on condition that they wouldn't blame the county for Sun's death or discuss the incident publicly. "The county officers told us that if anyone were to tell outsiders about the event, they would charge us as [anti-government] criminals," the source said. "Since they've paid 70,000 yuan to the dead man's family, people aren't talking about it anymore."

According to local sources, the county government served Ding and Daoji villages with eviction notices in August 2003, ordering them to surrender 1,600 mu (263 acres) of land for compulsory sale at well below market rates.

The farmers, who rely on this land for their livelihoods, began sitting outside government offices in nearby Xinxing Township in the hope of talking to officials. Sun�s death and the arrests occurred during this time.

The wife of another protester, Lao Suchan, said her husband was arrested because the protesters refused to go along with the government�s demands, which they had attempted to back up with a set of 1994 regulations.

"We did not accept the price they gave us," Lao�s wife said. "On the open market you need 1,000 yuan to buy one square foot of land. Now they want to give us 3,000 yuan for one mu (47,000 square feet)."

Mrs. Lao said the family would have no land and no livelihood left if they complied with the government�s request. "I have no job, and I can�t find a job," she said. "We asked the county officials to show us the legal document allowing them to take over our land, but they won�t even show us the right document. All my husband did was sit in front of the county building peacefully."

She said Lao had been detained in the county prison for the past two months but that she had been refused permission to see him.

The requisition of land by local governments and state-owned enterprises has become one of the most controversial topics in both urban and rural areas in China, as new roads, factories, and housing and office developments have sprung up nationwide.

Local residents evicted from their homes often complain of poor government compensation and forceful removals, while many accuse the government of cashing in on the real estate market at their expense. Some residents' groups in urban areas have lodged class-action suits against local governments and developers.

Chinese attorneys and legal scholars have denounced the now-widespread aggressive demolition and relocation practices as government-sponsored thuggery, which China's weak judicial system is failing to check.#####


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