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Rural Land Activists Detained after Petitioning over Corruption

March 27, 2006

Human Rights in China (HRIC) has learned that two rural land rights activists have been detained for more than a month in apparent retaliation for their efforts against local corruption and unlawful land seizures.

Liu Hua was formerly village head of Zhangliangbao Village, Honglingbao Township, in the Sujiatun District of Shenyang, Liaoning Province. Sources in China told HRIC that Liu and her husband, former village chairman Yue Yongjin, have been exposing corruption among village officials for several years. Since 2004 they have been petitioning Beijing to intervene in forcible land seizures in the village.

Sources say Liu and Yue most recently petitioned Beijing just before this year’s session of the National People’s Congress. They were detained on February 20 by officers of the Public Security Bureau’s You’anmen dispatch station, and on February 21 were forcibly returned to Shenyang, where they have remained in custody up to now. Sources say family members have not been shown a warrant or given any reason for the couple’s detention. According to the most recent information, Liu Hua is currently being held in Shenyang’s Masanjia Reeducation Center, and Yue Yongjin in the city’s Sujiatun District Detention Center.

Sources say that on February 28 and March 7, more than 40 residents of Zhangliangbao Village petitioned the Sujiatun District PSB Station calling for Liu and Yue’s release. A PSB officer surnamed Dou reportedly told the petitioners that Liu had broken petitioning regulations and caused trouble in Beijing, including shouting slogans outside of a United Nations office in Beijing, and that her crimes were “serious.” The villagers demanded that officials respond to Liu and Yue’s allegations of corruption, and said that without such a response, any official action against the couple could only be construed as revenge.

Sources told HRIC that in 2002, Liu and Yue accused the previous village committee of embezzling collective assets. Subsequently, Zhangliangbao residents elected Yue as village chairman and Liu as village head, but the previous officers refused to provide them with the official seal, making it impossible for Yue and Liu to exercise their official powers. Nevertheless, Liu and Yue brought in outside auditors to examine the village accounts, and the auditors determined that local village officials had unlawfully sold and reallocated collective property, including the village school. Village officials were also found to have taken possession of emergency funds for water, electricity and disaster relief. In all, corrupt officials, including the previous and current village Party secretaries and village accountant, were alleged to have taken assets worth more than 2.6 million yuan. The auditor’s report is attached to the Chinese version of this press release.

Sources say that local officials, angry over the investigation initiated by Liu and Yue, staged another election in April 2004, during which they openly purchased and coerced votes from villagers, and through which Zhang Fuqiang, a man with a criminal record, was elected the new village head. Since that time, sources say, Zhangliangbao Village has been in a state of constant turmoil, with village officials forcing villagers to consent to the sale of collective land. In spite of intimidation, more than 200 village households signed a petition objecting to the sale of village land and demanding the recall of village head Zhang Fuqiang and village Party secretary Liu Jia’an. In that same year, villagers chose Liu Hua and Yue Yongjin as their representatives to petition Beijing authorities to intervene in the land dispute.

Rural land controversies have led to increasing social unrest in recent years. Official statistics indicate that in 2004, an estimated 3.6 million people took part in 74,000 mass protests across China, and that the main causes of the protests were land disputes and allegations of official corruption. The number of protests in 2005 rose to 87,000, a 17 percent increase over 2004. At the end of last year, Premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged that unlawful land seizures were the chief cause of mass protests in China’s rural areas. Recent crackdowns against mass protests in Taishi Village and Shanwei Dongzhou Village are notable instances in which villagers were targeted after attempting to fight local corruption.

Village leaders such as Liu Hua and Yue Yongjin are being persecuted for their legitimate attempts to address fundamental issues of governance. Chinese laws and regulations prohibit retaliatory practices in response to petitioning and in the administration of village affairs. HRIC urges the Chinese authorities to abide by Chinese law, immediately release Liu Hua and Yue Yongjin, and properly address the serious allegations they have raised.