Three activists from the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu who were campaigning for compensation following their forced eviction from their land and homes have "disappeared," a Sichuan-based website reported.
Xia Kunxiang, Mao Jianzhong, and Gu Xingzhen were detained by officials from their hometown of Suzhou, Jiangsu, after they joined a group of 12 activists who traveled to Beijing to petition the central government over evictions and land grabs in Tongan township.
"They went to Beijing to petition, and they were brought back by Suzhou officials in charge of petitioners on March 6," fellow petitioner Yu Genyuan told RFA's Mandarin service.
"They haven't returned home yet."
The dispute sparked a standoff between villagers and police in July 2010.
"I don't know where they are," Yu added. "At the time there were about 12 of us who were brought back here, and the others have all gradually been released."
"There are three people still locked up inside that black jail," he said.
He said some petitioners from Tongan had been held in unofficial detention centers for those who complain against the government for as long as 300 days.
Calls to the Huqiu district government in Suzhou, Jiangsu, and the Tongan township government offices went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
China’s army of petitioners say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by authorities if they try to take complaints against local government actions to higher levels of government.
Many have been trying to win redress for alleged cases of official wrongdoing—including forced evictions, beatings in custody, and corruption linked to lucrative land sales—for decades.
Activists say this year's crackdown around the annual parliamentary sessions earlier this month was stricter than in previous years, as the authorities seek to curb public displays of discontent ahead of a key leadership transition at the highest ranks of the ruling Communist Party.
Rights groups have also warned of the growing use of extrajudical detention by Chinese police and officials, with central government earmarking more funds for domestic security than for defense last year.
In a report issued earlier this month, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said it had documented 3,833 incidences of individuals arbitrarily detained for their work in defense of human rights and 159 incidences of torture during such detentions in 2011.
"Common abuses included beatings, being forced to remain in stress positions for long periods of time, sleep deprivation, and denial of access to medical treatment," CHRD said.
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, whose Tianwang website first reported the Jiangsu petitioners' "disappearance," said the authorities had punished a number of local officials in the wake of the Tongan clashes, but had continued their harassment of activists who sought redress.
"On the surface it seemed they had dealt with the matter, but they still haven't properly compensated local people for [the loss of their homes and land]," Huang said.
"So there are still a large number of people pursuing legal complaints through official channels."
"The authorities have subjected them to severe oppression, which in turn has hardened the popular mood and provoked a backlash among the local people," he said.
"They have been detaining them and locking them up, and relations between officials and local residents have got worse and worse."
Tongan villagers have calculated that each household should have received compensation in the region of 40,000 yuan for their lost homes and farmland, according to current guidelines, and have accused local officials of embezzling it.
"The residential land, the farmland held in the responsibility system and the collective farmland have all been confiscated by them," Yu said.
"The Tongan township Party secretary was removed from his post, as was the [Huqiu] district Party secretary, but he is now working as a government official instead," he said.
"The issue of the the land lost by the entire population [of Tongan] hasn't been resolved," Yu added. "Nothing has changed."
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.