A court in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong has upheld a bribery conviction against the former head of the rebel village of Wukan, amid accusations that the authorities forced him to "confess" on local television.
Lin Zuluan, former ruling Communist Party secretary for Guangdong's Wukan village, 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 last month.
Lin, 72, had led a grassroots land protest campaign over the unauthorized sale of Wukan's farmland by his predecessor in 2011.
But few in Wukan believed his confession, which came after two other protest leaders received similar convictions, to be genuine.
Yu Pinjian, a defense lawyer hired by Lin's family but prevented from carrying out his instructions by police, told RFA the result didn't come as a surprise.
"It is extremely common to see initial rulings upheld on appeal in China's judicial system," Yu said. "We weren't surprised by this outcome."
But he said the appeal was worth bringing, in order to highlight illegal actions by the authorities in securing Lin's "confession."
"My personal opinion is that this is highly inappropriate in terms of due legal process," Yu said. "In the past few days the Supreme People's Court and Procuratorate and ... law enforcement agencies have issued a joint statement forbidding the use of such confessions as evidence of a person's guilt."
"So it's clear that these televised confessions don't fit in with those requirements."
Henan-based rights lawyer Chang Boyang agreed, adding that the authorities had prevented from him exercising his right to a fair trial.
"Lin Zuluan's family hired several lawyers including Ge Yongxi and Yu Pinjian," Chang said. "But they were prevented from acting on his behalf by the judicial authorities and under huge pressure from police."
"Then, the authorities broke the rules by forcibly appointing a lawyer for him, [which isn't] supposed to happen according to the law."
"But China's law enforcement agencies currently regard their own laws as expendable trash, and blatantly break their own rules," he said.
Lin's arrest prompted weeks of daily protests by thousands of residents of Wukan, who said the charges against him were a form of political retaliation by officials in nearby Lufeng city.
Constitutional affairs scholar and former delegate to the National People's Congress (NPC) Yao Lifa said the result shows that little has changed in China, in spite of the election of Lin and other former protest leaders to their village leadership in 2012.
"There is generally no change at all in the original verdict on appeal," Yao said. "The only hope of a change in verdict lies with the emergence of new and very strong evidence. Then it might happen."
"Without that, there's no chance" he said.
In 2011, the provincial government unexpectedly sided with Wukan, overriding officials in nearby Lufeng in a move that observers said was likely linked to attempts by then provincial leader Wang Yang to gain promotion.
The removal of Xue Chang and subsequent village elections were held up as a model of grassroots democracy in China at the time.
But since provincial leader Hu Chunhua took over in Guangdong in 2012, several former protest leaders from Wukan have been jailed on alleged "bribery" charges.
Last June, villagers persuaded Lin to mastermind a new land petition campaign, but he was detained before he could launch it, setting in motion more than 80 days of consecutive street protests.
In Hong Kong, a group of around a dozen protesters gathered outside Beijing's representative office in the former British colony, chanting: "There is no crime in fighting for your rights! Release the Wukan villagers now! Release Lin Zuluan!"
Pan-democratic lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki, who attended the protest, said a number of villagers remain in detention following a recent crackdown on daily demonstrations in Wukan over the summer.
"We call on the central government to release Lin Zuluan and all wrongfully detained Wukan villagers now behind bars," Kwok said.
"Countless Wukan villagers were beaten up and detained, and that makes us very angry," he said. "We call for the corrupt officials behind this to be arrested and given a heavy sentence."
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Lucy Lu and Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.