2017-03-30 14:56:22

A farmer in central China is being sued by local authorities, who argue the compensation he accepted from the government constitutes blackmail.

Wangmingkou Township, in Henan province, struck a deal with Li Zhizhou in November 2012. Li agreed to stop petitioning higher governments with complaints of illegal detention and physical assault at the hands of law enforcement officials, and in return he received 100,000 yuan ($14,500) in “poverty aid funds.”

Three years later, however, Li, now 53, was arrested, with public prosecutors claiming his petitioning and the compensation he received were proof that he had blackmailed civil servants.

Li’s lawyer, Ji Laisong, dismissed the allegations as “ridiculous.” He told Sixth Tone that the agreement between his client and township government was signed in the presence of the deputy police commissioner and the deputy president of the court, as well as other officials.

Ji believes his client’s arrest and prosecution are a result of his repeated petitions, which led to at least two officials being punished. Li accuses employees of the Municipal People’s Court of Xiangcheng, the city that administers Wangmingkou, of misconduct. The city’s regulations on petitions, issued in 2012, state that if petitioners go to the provincial government more than twice, or more than once to Beijing, the leader of the government department implicated in their grievances must resign.

“If you keep petitioning, township government leaders will all have to resign,” Ji recalled the prosecutor saying in the courtroom. Petitioning higher levels of authority is a way for Chinese people to complain about their government, which can be damaging to the careers of officials involved. Local governments are known to go to great lengths to stop citizens from petitioning their superiors — frequently resorting to violence, so-called black jails, and other illegal practices.

On Monday, the final hearing in Li’s case took place in a county near Xiangcheng. Ji said that no witnesses attended the trial, and that there was no legal evidence presented apart from testimonies from officials who said that they were blackmailed by Li. A date for the verdict has yet to be announced.

The origins of the whole ordeal can be traced back to a land dispute between Li and his brother in 2008. Li lost the initial case, but he appealed and won after his brother withdrew his suit — a decision that also involved the court paying him damages. In May 2012, Li petitioned a higher-level court, complaining that the compensation payment had been delayed, and that he had been illegally detained and subjected to violence from law enforcement officials when the first verdict was enforced.

Between 2012 and 2015, Li filed petitions at an intermediate court, the higher court of Henan province, and the provincial petition bureau. According to the prosecutors, in 2012 Li threatened to petition the central authorities in Beijing if he wasn’t given the compensation money.

Wang Yong, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, told Sixth Tone that there has been an increase in court cases where petitioners are accused of “blackmailing the government.” According to China Judgments Online, an incomplete database of court documents, the number of such cases nationwide increased elevenfold between 2013 and 2016, from about 25 to 280. According to lawyer Ji, the administrative region Xiangcheng belongs to, Zhoukou, last year saw more than 10 similar cases in which petitioners were accused of blackmailing government officials.

Wang said local officials are worried that petitioners will cast a shadow on their political achievements. “The threat they feel is pressure from supervision, not from blackmail,” he said. However, Wang added that while many petitioners don’t violate the law, they do sometimes have unreasonable demands. “The petition system, though it alleviates social tension, is not a fundamental solution to these problems,” he said. “Sometimes it creates a weird game between citizens and the government.”

“The government is supposed to protect people’s lives and property,” said Ji, Li’s lawyer. “It is really weird that our government is so weak and easily blackmailed.”

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Zheng Shuai/IC)