Authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing are holding more than 20 members of a farming community who petitioned against eviction from their land on suspicion of public order charges, sources close to the case told RFA on Monday.
Police from Nanjing's Jianye district detained 23 petitioners last Friday on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" after they used the popular chat-room platform QQ to plan collective action over their lost land, a source who asked to remain anonymous said.
Among those detained at their homes in the district were Wu Juan, Yi Junxiu, Wu Zeyu, Zhu Qiaoyun, Huang Shihua, Lu Meiping, Zhu Jide, Ding Tongxiang, Chen Caixiang, Chen Caihua, Yang Shizhen, Luo Dejin and his wife, Wei Yuxiu and Sun Xingzhen.
"When they were detained, some fellow evictees went to their homes to support them, and the police told them that the Nanjing police department had set up a special taskforce to deal with the case," the source said.
"[The people who were detained] often went on QQ and WeChat groups to chat," he said. "There were a few core members of the group who said quite a lot online and were detained afterwards, and their homes searched."
"They took away computers and documents from the search," he said.
A second source told RFA that the basis for the charge isn't known, but appears to be the fact that the detainees discussed coordinating their petitioning activities on social media.
"[Some] are being held under criminal detention, basically for petitioning," the second source said. "They haven't been released ... the police took them away, and it said 'picking quarrels and stirring up trouble' on the paperwork."
He said the group had recently made weekly trips to the district government to complain about the loss of their land, and had shared their legal expertise via social media.
An officer who answered the phone at the Jianye district police bureau declined to comment. "I don't know about this," the officer said.
Nanjing-based journalist Sun Lin, who writes for the overseas-based Boxun news website, and who has been previously jailed for writing about forced evictions, said the detentions show that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is taking a much harder line against those who complain than in previous years.
"I think the detention of petitioners has reached a level of zeal we haven't seen before," Sun told RFA on Monday.
"[The district government] controls the court of first instance, and the police and the prison," he said. "With all of those weapons in their arsenal, they can do as they please."
"They can detain whoever they want, whenever they want."
He said powerful vested interests are usually behind such complaints over the loss of farmland and forced eviction.
"Government has close ties with business, and officials all back each other up," he said.
Nanjing's former mayor Ji Jianye, known by his nickname "Mayor Bulldozer" because of his love of big construction projects, was jailed for 15 years in January as part of President Xi Jinping's ongoing anti-corruption campaign after being found guilty of bribery.
In China, all land is ultimately owned by the state, but is allocated to communities under collective contract under a system that replaced large-scale state-run farms and communes when late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978.
Land acquisition for development, often resulting in lucrative property deals for local officials, sparks thousands of protests by local communities across China every month, many of which escalate into clashes with police.
Violent forced evictions, often resulting in deaths and injuries, are continuing to rise in China, as cash-strapped local governments team up with development companies to grab property in a bid to boost revenue, rights groups say.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.