Authorities in the rebel village of Wukan in southern China's Guangdong province have jailed two former local officials who led a long-running campaign against land grabs, forcing them to withdraw from village-level elections, their families told RFA on Friday.
Hong Ruichao and Yang Semao, who had served on the village commmittee following protests in 2011, were tried for "accepting bribes" by a local court in July, on what their relatives said were trumped-up charges.
Yang was jailed for two years, while Hong received a four-year prison term, Hong's sister Hong Ruiqing told RFA.
"Around the time of the elections, the authorities didn't want Yang and Hong to stand for election, but they both wanted to stand so as to help the people of Wukan protect their land," she said.
"My brother, Hong Ruichao, was tried on July 24, and they cobbled together some random evidence to try to make the charges stick," Hong Ruiqing said.
"My brother said all along that he hadn't done it, and that he'd been framed; that it was a miscarriage of justice."
Three weeks later, Yang Semao was also criminally detained, and his family received notification in mid-September of his jail sentence, she said.
"Two days later, we received notification of my brother's four-year jail term," Hong Ruiqing said.
"We have been in touch with a lawyer, and we have already lodged an appeal," she said.
Yang and Hong, both outspoken figures in the villagers' daring 2011 protest campaign to recover huge tracts of farmland sold by a previous village official, were forced to withdraw from elections to the village committee after being detained in March.
Wukan gripped world headlines in 2011 after local people fought off armed police at makeshift barricades, retaining control of their village and prompting provincial officials in Guangdong to back their demands over the heads of authorities in nearby Lufeng city.
Local people were then allowed to re-elect their village committee and its officials in March 2012, with former protest leaders replacing the old guard in a highly publicized poll that was held up as a model of village democracy in rural China.
Former ruling Communist Party village secretary Xue Chang was removed from office and disciplined for corruption.
But subsequent committees have made scant progress on the issue of returning farmland to villagers' control.
A few weeks before fresh village elections were due last March, Yang and Hong were detained on alleged corruption charges. A third former Wukan committee member, Zhuang Liehong, had already fled to the United States in search of political asylum.
Both Yang and Hong said the charges were linked to payments made to their bank accounts, but which they later returned.
Wukan resident Zhang Jianxing, who has also spoken out repeatedly over the loss of farmland, said he thought the sentences were "far too harsh."
"I think those were very heavy sentences; they shouldn't have had such long sentences," Zhang said.
Some Wukan residents said they have been following recent mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, dubbed the "Umbrella Revolution," while others are staging their own protests, complete with umbrellas.
New village committee dormant
Hong Ruiqing said the village committee returned in the March elections had yet to hold a single meeting, sparking protests outside the village committee offices in recent days.
"There are a few dozen of them there every day," she said. "They are all elderly people. They have put up umbrellas, and have surrounded the place."
"A lot of older people are saying they must have justice for those people who've been wronged, and that Wukan should get its land back."
She said seven police vehicles had parked near the protest.
"There were even more police than the elderly people protesting," Hong Ruiqing said.
Zhang said people had had high hopes of getting justice at the time of Xue Chang's dismissal and the 2012 elections.
"Back then, everyone's expectations were pretty high, saying that democracy would develop in Wukan," he said.
"But the rule of law here is still far from perfect, so democracy seems pretty unlikely under such circumstances."
"The reality is that democracy in Wukan has taken a step backwards," Zhang said.
He said he had been following Hong Kong's mass civil disobedience campaign for universal suffrage closely.
"Hong Kong now has some similarities with Wukan back then," Zhang said, adding: "I hope Hong Kong people do get genuine universal suffrage."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.