A rights lawyer helping villagers in southern China resolve a tense land dispute with the local government has been formally arrested, his attorney said yesterday.
Gao Zhisheng told reporters the law firm received notice this week from police that Guo Feixiong had been arrested on charges of "gathering crowds to disturb social order."
"All we know is that he's been formally arrested. ... We don't know when the trial will take place," said Gao, head of the Beijing-based Zhisheng Legal Office and Guo's employer.
Guo "disappeared" last month after he educated farmers at Taishi village in Guangdong Province in their ongoing battle to legally remove village head Chen Jinsheng, whom locals accuse of corrupt land practices.
Chen had allegedly sold villagers' land without their consent and pocketed some of the money.
Villagers told reporters yesterday numerous plainclothes police and uniformed guards have been posted in the village to monitor the activities of the villagers around the clock.
"They are guarding entrances to our village. They've also gone from door to door warning us not to cause trouble," said one woman who declined to be identified for fear of retribution. "People are afraid to speak to reporters."
Several previously outspoken villagers' mobile numbers have been switched off. Foreign reporters who tried to go to the village have been harassed.
Academics and lawyers around China view the case as a test of the central government's determination to fully implement laws on village democracy, something they had been promoting.
The case could have significant ramifications, especially given it involves China's richest province, as it could affect the widespread land redevelopment -- which often come with unfair seizure of land from the farmers -- going on in major cities.
Authorities may view any victory by the farmers to regain possession of the land Chen sold as having a negative impact, such as scaring away buyers and developers.
For weeks, civil affairs officials from the provincial capital Guangzhou's Panyu district refused to accept a petition to remove Chen and repeatedly sent police to detain villagers and break up peaceful protests.