05/25/2006, 00.00
CHINA
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Dongzhou villagers sent to prison

The trial lasted all of two days. The sentences handed down to the villagers range from three to seven years in prison, although the government had penalized the police involved. Just as they had ignored the people's protest and subsequent clash, no state media agencies covered this event either.

Haifeng (AsiaNews/SCMP) – Sentences for 18 residents of the village of Dongzhou in Guangdong were handed down after only two days of trial. The villagers were accused of instigating a bloody revolt that broke out at the entrance of the village last December.

Although the central government punished the policemen held to be responsible for the clashes, the People's Court of Haifeng – which like Dongzhou also falls under the jurisdiction of Shanwei – condemned 12 men to prison terms ranging from three to seven years, while the other seven were let off for want of evidence. The charges presented by the attorney general were of illegally possessing explosives, illegal assembly and disturbing public order.

The court handed down the harshest sentences to the presumed leaders of the protest: Huang Xirang, Lin Hanru and Huang Xijun. This information was confirmed by relatives of the condemned men because state media did not cover the event at all, just as they did not cover the village protest and subsequent clashes that took place. A court employee, contacted by telephone, said she knew nothing about the judgment and hung up.

The decision of the judges is in stark contrast with punishments meted out by the central government to police leaders implicated in the clashes: the chief who led the operation and ordered officers to open fire was sacked and three other policemen were reprimanded.

The protest in Dongzhou was born of forced land seizure, wanting compensation and scorn shown by the public administration for the requests of the villagers. For more than a year, the residents complained about the seizure of their lands by the local government for the construction of a power station. They say their land was sold to overseas investors without warning and the compensation given was less than 30% that stipulated in government scales.

The residents of Dongzhou said they sought the help of the government through several petitions presented to the state administration. But they were always ignored. "Government representatives offered to pay us only 10 to 30% of the compensation we are entitled to for the requisition."

The crisis intensified in May, when the umpteenth petition was met by the local government with an offer of 600,000 yuan (around 60,000 euros) as a one-off compensation sum. "What's the point of 600,000 yuan? We would have nothing if we lost the lake. We are not beggars," said the residents. In July, a delegation of three residents was arrested for seeking to deliver another petition. The three were released only after their friends blocked the streets leading to a tourist village for 24 hours.

Things came to a head in September, when the accountant of the village committee, Huang Jinhe, was found dead in the home of relatives. "We believe Huang was murdered because he refused to falsify accounts for the committee a day before they were published," a villager said. The accountant's death convinced his co-citizens to come together and to ask for help from the residents of Shigongliao, a neighbouring village which had faced similar problems in the past.

The villages' common front prompted the police to launch the first raid in Dongzhou to "search for drug traffickers". The first to be apprehended was Li Zelong, the leader of the protest. "We knew Li was an addict, but he gave up drugs three years ago," villagers said. "They took him because we trusted him and because he is knowledgeable about the law."

The arrest on 5 December sparked the protest and its bloody repression: the day after the "visit" of police, the residents of both villages went outside a wind-power plant on the main road out of the village, and struck it with clubs and fish bombs (a concoction of fertiliser soaked in kerosene capped in a glass bottle).

The local government dispatched 1000 riot squad policemen to "calm the population". "By mistake" the policemen shot and killed three people - according to the official version. Going by what the residents said, there were 20 victims in the massacre.

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