The democratically elected village chief of Wukan was sentenced to over three years in prison on Sep. 8, amidst protests from villagers.
The Chinese coastal village of Wukan in southern Guangdong Province has become a symbol of resistance because of a 2011 mass uprising. Villagers had protested officials taking their land without sufficient compensation and otherwise being corrupt. Officials yielded to the protests and allowed the village to choose its own leaders.
Lin Zulian, 72, was one of the key protest leaders, and in 2012 became the first democratically elected village chief in China.
The police arrested Lin at home on June 18 on corruption charges. The arrest took place the night before Lin could organize a village assembly, and plan for a petition protesting against the officials’ illegal taking of the villager’s land.
Days following the arrest, Lin was seen on local television confessing that he took bribes in civil engineering projects. Villagers believed the TV confession was staged.
Lin’s TV appearance recalled the treatment of human rights lawyers arrested in 2015 in the massive crackdown known as the as the 709 incident. Wang Yu, a prominent Chinese rights defense lawyer, was released after she made a scripted speech on TV in August. She repented “going to extremes” in the past, and said she did not acknowledge an international lawyer’s award recognizing her work on human rights advocacy. Zhang Kai, another lawyer arrested in the same incident, also admitted guilt in a televised appearance in February.
Lin pleaded guilty in a public hearing in the Chancheng District Court of Foshan City, Guangdong Province. He was fined 200,000 yuan (about $30,000) for taking bribes that totaled up to 593,000 yuan ($89,000), and given a 37-month prison sentence.
Family and villagers raised questions over the handling of the case, despite the officials’ claim that it was an open trial.
On the day their chief was tried, villagers initiated a four-day strike despite police warnings. Some villagers stopped fishing, shut their stores or market stalls, and halted construction. They have been staging demonstrations that sometimes number in thousands since Lin’s arrest in June.
Lin’s relatives said the trial lacked transparency and was unjust and unfair. They complained that they were prevented from hiring their own lawyer for Lin, according to Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao. Only three relatives of Lin were allowed to attend the trial, under the watch of two security guards, and Hong Kong reporters approaching the courtroom were turned away, reported Apple Daily.
“We know about our village chief, he didn’t commit crimes. It’s only because he offended corrupt officials,” villager Lin told NTDTV in an interview. Lin said that the authorities warned students and villagers not to participate in marches, with threats of job loss.
“From 1949 to today, was there a time when villagers were not contented when a corrupt official was arrested? Yet Wukan has been protesting for over 70 days ever since Uncle Lin was arrested,” Mr. Cai, a Wukan local, told Hong Kong-based news station Now.
“Many don’t believe he was corrupt… he was taken away just after announcing a group petition and preparing for an assembly,” Zhen Jianghua, a rights activist from the Guangdong city of Zhuhai, told NTDTV. Zhen was arrested on Sep. 7, and released after the trial on the night of Sep. 9. “It just feels like a false charge,” he added.