Authorities in eastern China's Zhejiang province said they will try a truck driver in connection to the death of political activist and elected village chief Qian Yunhui, amid widespread doubts that his death was an accident.
The local government in Yueqing county said in a notice posted on its official microblog that members of the public could attend the trial of Fei Liangyu, the driver accused of hitting the 53-year-old Qian with his truck on Dec. 25, sparking a public outcry online.
Fei will face trial for causing a traffic accident, a charge already endorsed by the state prosecutor.
News of the arrest and charge came Tuesday after hundreds of villagers clashed with authorities at a major intersection between the towns of Hongqiao and Puqi over the weekend.
Qian had lobbied provincial authorities several times on the behalf of the residents of Zhaiqiao village, who say an energy company has yet to compensate them for seizing hundreds of acres of their land.
Meanwhile, a team of investigators from a top Beijing-based public interest legal firm sparked further anger when it concluded Qian could have died in an accident after all.
Peng Jian, a member of the Beijing-based civil rights legal group Gongmeng, said his team did not see the autopsy results, but reviewed other evidence presented by local police.
"According to the video we saw, and [a] statement given to police ... we couldn't see how anyone could have pushed him," Peng said.
He said the tense local atmosphere had led many online to assume that Qian had been deliberately killed.
"The rumors are getting more and more inflated because of conflict between the local people and officials, and people are accepting them as true," he said.
But Sichuan-based rights activist Liu Feiyue said the Gongmeng team was only shown limited evidence.
"Everyone knows that the atmosphere was very tense at the time, and the villagers were very frightened," he said.
"The evidence they collected must be called into question."
"The Gongmeng investigators are legal experts, but they are laymen when it comes to investigating accidents," Liu said.
"We must just continue to seek the truth."
Yueqing city was under tight restrictions both before and after the investigation, however, making newsgathering extremely difficult, according to people on the ground.
Police raided the hotel room of Shenzhen-based citizen journalist Zheng Chuangtian after he arrived in Yueqing to report on the investigation into Qian's death.
Zheng, who said he had been followed by national security police since arriving in Yueqing, said the police had accused him of taking drugs, and asked him to go to the police station for a urine test.
"They said they suspected me of taking drugs," he said. "Then I went with them to the police station."
"They tested my urine using paper strips. Then they said there were no traces of drugs, and that I could go," Zheng added.
Lack of trust
Meanwhile, prominent blogger Han Han said the case, and the public reaction to it, did more to illustrate the lack of trust of Chinese officials than to illuminate the cause of Qian's death.
"A lot of people whose past actions have received widespread affirmation have still come in for harsh criticism because they have said they believe the results of the government investigation," Han wrote on his blog.
U.S.-based scholar Cheng Xiaonong said that the way the authorities covered up evidence during the investigation was in violation of China's criminal code, however.
"There were four special police in black uniform at the scene at the time, and then they left. Officials have covered up the existence of their vehicle," Cheng said.
He said the government had detained key witnesses and locked up some villagers involved in the land dispute, and had lifted travel restrictions just long enough for the Gongmeng team's visit.
"In this way they were able to create the conditions for the Gongmeng team to reach the conclusion they wanted it to," Cheng said.
Qian's continual campaign for compensation began in 2005, after nearly 150 hectares (370 acres) of land was seized by Zhejiang Provincial Energy Group.
Villagers told the official Global Times newspaper that they had yet to receive any of the 65 million yuan (U.S. $10 million) that was promised them in compensation.
Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.