The chief of a Chinese village where thousands of people held protests against illegal land grabs in recent weeks is still being held in detention, and his lawyer says authorities have stepped up efforts to incriminate him.
Wukan village chief Lin Zulian is seen as a hero to many of the village's 20,000 residents ever since he led the 2011 local rebellion that threw out the previous government for allegedly seizing land. In recent weeks he has threatened to restart protests to press for compensation for villagers.
Lawyer Wei Ruijiu told VOA that prosecutors in Lufeng City of Guangdong province last Friday flatly rejected his request to meet with Lin.
Authorities say that Lin has stated in writing that he refuses to hire a lawyer. Lin’s family and villagers have cast doubts over the handwritten statement, circulated online last Friday and bearing the detained chief’s signature.
Lawyer Wei Ruijiu traveled to Wukan to try to meet with Lin, however he said local prosecutors forbid them from meeting.
Barred from verifying the statement’s authenticity, Wei found the prosecutor’s action unlawful.
“I find it unacceptable. As the legal saying goes: justice not only has to prevail, but will also prevail in a visible way. What does a visible way mean? It means to ensure the accused’s rights to defend himself,” Wei said, adding that even murderers are entitled to legal counsel.
Wei also confirmed that Yu Pinjian, one of two lawyers from Guangdong, whom Lin’s family had planned on hiring, was blocked by “one of the deputy governors in Guangdong” from advising Lin, a move that angered Wei and motivated him to take up the job last week.
“The way Guangdong province handled the case has seriously violated the law and obstructed our country’s unified system of rule of law. It has also been out of sync with our central government’s legal regime, which I believe higher-ups are fully aware of,” the Beijing-based lawyer said.
Wei added prosecutors also failed to reveal where Lin is being detained.
Guangdong authorities continue to ignore calls to ensure a fair trial for Lin, a democratically-elected leader who negotiated peace in Wukan five years ago among the village’s land grab disputes with corrupt local Communist Party leaders. He now faces charges of corruption.
Villagers carry banners which read "Plead the central government to help Wukan" (in red) and "Wukan villagers don't believe Lin Zuluan took bribes" during a protest in Wukan, China's Guangdong province, June 22, 2016.
Amid week-long calls by villagers to free their chief, prosecutors in Sanwei City on Friday accused Lin of having received another $12,377 in kickbacks from the construction of a village school’s synthetic running track.
A Shanwei press secretary said Friday, three days after Lin’s first video-taped confession was made public, Lin had also confessed to the new charge.
Following his June 18th arrest, Lin became the first person in China to be accused of toxic track graft, a scandal involving substandard running tracks that allegedly have sickened school children in 15 other cities. The timing of the accusation against Lin triggered sarcastic responses from netizens, while many villagers in Wukan continue support Lin.
“Nonsense. There’s nothing wrong with the running track in Wukan. Public security officials, please turn your attention to those schools with problem, ok?,” a comment posted by a Weibo user.
“Villagers should have been pleased if he is found guilty of corruption and being arrested. But why does every one of us demand his release? It’s because he’s the only person we can trust and people in Wukan need him,” another Weibo Lin supporter said.
Protesters hold pictures of the Wukan village's 70-year-old leader, Lin Zuluan during a protest in Hong Kong, June 21, 2016.
Social media has become one of the few platforms for villagers in Wukan to speak their mind after local authorities ordered reporters to leave Wukan last week.
A user, named A-mian, said the hidden agenda behind Lin’s case is that local authorities are trying to cover up something else by distracting the public’s attention on corruption.
Land controversy lingers
Despite of Lin's arrest, the focus on land grab issues in Wukan and elsewhere in China won’t easily dissipate, said David Zweig, chair professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The land controversy has for decades continued to pose the biggest tug of war between farmers and local governments, whose major source of income is land sales, the professor added.
According to Zweig, half of the nation’s 200,000 mass demonstrations annually are triggered by land disputes.
If Chinese leaders can break local governments’ control over land, and slow the massive land confiscations since the late 1990s, the major source of social unrest in China will be eased, the professor added.