Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have formally detained the head of a village near Lianzhou, and accused him of leading a protest over the loss of farmland.
Fan Shuihe, head of Dadong village, was being held under criminal detention on public order charges, his daughter Fan Hongyun said on Friday.
"I just got the notification yesterday," she said. "He was detained [on Wednesday] afternoon for gathering a crowd to cause a disturbance, and for disrupting traffic."
"Apart from my father, there are another 10 or so villagers who have been detained. Some officials from the township government came by with their notifications."
Fan Shuihe told RFA's Mandarin service in an interview on Tuesday that the villagers had organized a blockade of the village themselves, and that he had never visited the barricades in person, nor had he organized the protest.
Fan Hongyun said her father had been at home resting during the attempted blockade of police reinforcements, which ended in door-to-door raids on local residents' homes and the detention of dozens of villagers, according to local residents.
"He never went there ... I think they are trying to say that he orchestrated it, because he's the head of the village," she said.
"We don't even know how long they will detain him for on these charges of gathering a crowd to cause trouble," Fan Hongyun added. "My father's health is very poor—very poor indeed."
Residents said on Wednesday that around 40 people had been taken away by police in door-to-door raids on homes, while others were in hospital with injuries following clashes between riot police and villagers over a long-standing dispute involving 617 mu (about 100 hectares) of farmland.
Around 127 families are contesting the government's takeover of their farmland, and have been taking their case through official channels for about a decade, villagers said.
The latest protest was sparked by the rejection of their appeal in the Guangdong Provincial Higher People's Court this week.
Villagers took to the barricades on Tuesday in a protest that initially resembled the successful campaign by fellow villagers in Wukan to oust local politicians. However, Wukan has yet to see any of its land returned, in spite of democratic elections for a new village committee in March.
Another villager, also surnamed Fan, said his father, along with at least 10 other villagers, had been released from detention late on Wednesday. Around 10 people remain in custody, and have been sentenced to eight days' administrative detention, a sentence handed down by police for minor offenses, without the need for a trial.
"The atmosphere is such that nobody dares to go outside," he said. "They are afraid that they will be followed or detained."
He said the campaign had been betrayed by people within its own ranks.
Beijing-based rights activist Yu Guofu, who has been following the Dadong villagers' campaign, said that the right to demonstrate was enshrined in China's Constitution. "I don't think that protesting is a crime," Yu said. "People just want to be able to support themselves and have somewhere to live."
"Nobody would have disrupted traffic if the officials hadn't already violated their rights," he said. "They shouldn't use the law in a biased manner to attack the people."
Li Xinde, who runs the website Watchdog Net for Citizens and Public Opinion, said the villagers had blocked the road as a last resort, and that Fan Shuihe was being targeted as a deterrent.
"It's because he is the head of the village," Li said. "The officials higher up see him as the organizer, whereas in fact this was a spontaneous protest by the villagers."
"It's very common for people to take action to try to defend their rights," he said. "It's only when they have exhausted all the other routes, because the government has blocked them at every turn, that they turn to a physical form of protest."
"They had no other options left," Li added.
The majority of the land around Dadong was leased to the villagers under the post-1979 responsibility system brought in by late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.
However, the Lianzhou city government wrested control of a local tourist attraction, limestone caves and an underground river with spectacular stalagmites and stalactites, away from the village committee, offering compensation that villagers say was far below the value of the business.
The villagers say their attempts to win back control of the tourist site and adjoining land have taken them to higher levels of government, including the municipal land and resources bureau and tourism bureau, but with no result.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.