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    Elderly Petitioner Ruled Innocent After Years Behind Bars

    Zeng Xiuzhen was found guilty of blackmail after she accepted compensation for illegal construction on her land.

    A 72-year-old villager who ended up in prison after petitioning authorities for years over a land transfer dispute has been ruled innocent, The Beijing News reported Tuesday.

    Local officials often throw up barriers against petitioners like Zeng Xiuzhen when they air grievances to their superiors. In her case, she was sentenced to four years in prison for blackmail in 2010. But the High People’s Court of Guangdong, the province in southern China where Zeng lives, overturned her conviction on June 11.

    In China, rural land is collectively owned by villagers, which often leads to disputes among people or with officials when land is rented out or sold. Such problems also hit Weibu Village, Zeng’s hometown near Huizhou City, when it began to shift away from traditional farming as it was drawn into the burgeoning economy of the Pearl River Delta.

    In 2006, the village committee held a meeting to sell 2,000 square meters of land, including an area where 40 of Zeng’s family’s longan and lychee trees were planted, to five out-of-towners looking to build villas. Zeng couldn’t attend the meeting, and her son accepted the compensation money, 6,200 yuan (then about $775), on her behalf. When Zeng found out, she disagreed with the plan and told her son to return the money, but local officials refused to accept it.

    Zeng’s repeated protests to the Huizhou government that the villas were illegal — a local residency registration is required to build a house in the countryside — led to an official order to halt the work. Nevertheless, all five villas were built. In 2007, one of the home owners, Li Hanwen, offered Zeng 150,000 yuan in return for her silence, which she accepted.

    A year later, the village committee decided to transfer another plot of land, this time to a different government unit. Though two-thirds of the members agreed, Zeng thought the proposed amount of compensation was too low. For more than a year and a half, Zeng and other dissatisfied villagers petitioned local and provincial authorities, and even went to Beijing.

    After Zeng returned from the capital, the secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of Huiyang District, which administers Weibu Village, said in a meeting that Zeng should be "dealt with,” an anonymous witness who attended Zeng’s first trial told The Beijing News. In 2010, Li, the home owner, reported Zeng for blackmail over the money he had paid her two years earlier. Zeng was arrested and found guilty.

    Zeng told The Beijing News that she spent a lot of time in the prison library, studying China’s land laws and appeal procedures. She did well on her law exams in prison and was released ahead of schedule in December 2012 for good behavior.

    Out of prison, Zeng appealed her conviction. The provincial high court ruled that Zeng’s petitioning was a legitimate effort to protect her rights, and that she only accepted Li’s money after the local government failed to do anything to solve the problem for more than a year. Zeng is planning to apply for compensation for the time she served in prison.

    The Beijing News said other villagers praise the frail Zeng as a staunch defender of their rights, and that, years after her release, Zeng has yet to shake some prison habits. She sits with a perfectly straight back and sometimes subconsciously raises her hand before speaking.

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (A gavel on a judge’s table at a court in Fuzhou, Fujian province, Aug. 25, 2016. VCG)