Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have jailed the head of a grassroots democracy movement on "bribery" charges after he planned to relaunch a campaign of petitioning over his village's lost farmland.
Lin Zuluan, former ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary for Guangdong's rebel village of Wukan, was handed a 37-month jail term and a U.S.$60,000 fine after a court in Foshan city found him guilty of taking bribes and of other charges.
Wukan residents, who were largely prevented from attending the trial by draconian security measures, rejected the sentence, however, saying the charges against Lin were trumped up.
"This was clearly a forced confession, I'm sure of it," a resident who gave only a nickname Bing Shu, told RFA. "I want secretary Lin to come home, and then things will get better in this village."
"When other people were party secretary here, we had nothing," Bing Shu said. "That changed when Lin became party secretary."
He said some 2,000 people had come out in protest in Wukan, only to face a heavy police presence on the streets.
"There were police at every intersection, and they were checking every vehicle that was going in or out of the village," Bing Shu said. "Also, the phone signal was very poor during that time, and it was hard to make any phone calls."
Lin admitted taking bribes in a televised "confession," but few in Wukan believed it to be genuine, as the authorities had also prevented him from meeting with lawyers hired by his family to defend him.
Supporters turned away
Canada-based rights activist Yeung Hung, who has followed events in Wukan closely in recent years, said security outside the Foshan Intermediate People's Court was tight on Thursday, with many of Lin's supporters turned away after evading security to reach the city.
"The villagers who had applied to attend the trial weren't even able to get close to the court buildings," Yeung said. "There were more than 60 police vehicles parked there, and some cars with no license plate at all."
"There were also three water cannons within a 500 meter radius, and the police sealed off the street so that ordinary passersby couldn't get through," he said. "The police told people it was because of road maintenance work."
A second Wukan resident who declined to be named said foreign journalists were also kept away from the court buildings in Foshan during Lin's trial.
"There were some foreign journalists who tried to get in there, but they couldn't get in," he said.
He said the government had been handing out letters to specific protesters, warning them not to protest ahead of the trial.
"If they did, they would be arrested," he said. "But the more they do these things, the more angry people get."
Named leader after protests
Lin, 72, was made the new head of the village in 2012 as former protest leaders were elected to positions on the village committee following weeks of protests, and after a standoff at the barricades made world headlines after the death of a protester in police custody in 2011.
The provincial government, unusually, took the side of the villagers, overruling officials in nearby Lufeng city, which administers Wukan, and firing former party secretary Xue Chang from his post on corruption charges.
The elections that followed were widely reported in China's tightly controlled media as a model of grassroots democracy.
But a committee charged with getting the villagers' farmland back made scant progress, and two of its members were themselves jailed on "bribery" charges last year, in a move their relatives said was a form of political retaliation.
Lin's detention in June came as villagers persuaded him to relaunch the land protest campaign, and sparked 80 days of continual street protests.
Huang Shunxing, an official of Foshan's People's Court, told Reuters he was not aware of Lin's case, while Lin's relatives and associates were inaccessible for comment, the agency said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.