A long-running eviction dispute at one of the biggest dam projects in Sichuan province has taken another turn, with six villagers detained because of their persistent protest against what locals call unfair resettlement.
Tensions remain high between tens of thousands of villagers and the local government in Hanyuan county after authorities threatened to jail those arrested for up to three years, residents say.
The latest twist came after local officials - under pressure from superiors and the project's developer, the Guodian Group - used force to demolish the homes of more than 100 families in Dashu town since March in order to step up the long-delayed resettlement for the Pubugou Dam project. The 186-metre-high dam on the Dadu River, part of the mainland's fifth-largest hydroelectric plant, is no stranger to controversy, largely because of the evictions. Disputes in the past six years over resettling the farmers have forced delays.
Most of the villagers from seven towns in Hanyuan have been displaced and have ended their protests. Although the villagers are still upset, only a few dozen families remain defiant after years of petitions and protests. They said they were enraged by the government's use of force to demolish their homes and deprive them of their lawful rights.
'My wife, Lei Keqiao, and five other women began to petition the township government late last month after our houses were demolished by force,' said Luo Qidian , a Dashu resident whose family had to move to a designated area about 40 kilometres away.
Luo said the six were arrested on June 13. 'Police accused them of trying to harm the township chief, who showed up at the scene, but we don't know what actually happened then.'
Police have not let him visit his wife. 'Local cadres told me those who were found to have led the protest would be subject to jail sentences of two to three years. But all of them are victims of forced eviction, and they said they would rather die if they were not allowed to voice their grievances.
'Officials even said that even if they were wrong, they had no choice but to let it be wrong to the end.'
Local authorities were not available to comment yesterday.
Luo's younger brother, Luo Qihui , was detained in April for defying eviction. He had threatened to detonate three cooking gas cylinders in front of more than 500 cadres and policemen who, led by the county's Communist Party boss, surrounded the houses of the Luo brothers. He was taken away for nine days on a vague charge of 'using violence to confront laws'.
Residents say officials have recently accelerated the eviction plan as the provincial authorities have vowed to finish the resettlement as soon as possible and fill the reservoir to reach the maximum water level of 851 metres above sea level this year.
Law experts described the suffering of the residents as appalling and said what the authorities did was 'an outrageous violation of the law and regulations barring forced eviction'.
However, Professor Wang Jianxun of the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing said villagers had few options to protect themselves. 'Give the reality that the government controls everything, including the judiciary, it is almost impossible for those victims to use legal means to seek justice,' he said. 'Sadly, they have to fight for themselves with whatever means possible.'