China convicts driver who ran over lobbying farmer

A Chinese court on Tuesday convicted and sentenced a driver to jail for running over a village leader in a case that raised suspicions the victim was murdered to stop his efforts to seek compensation for seized land.

Farmer Qian Yunhui was crushed under the wheel of a large red truck on Dec. 25 outside his Zhaiqiao village in eastern China's Zhejiang province, where he and others had earlier blocked the road to prevent the construction of a power plant.

His death underscored a growing lack of trust in China's government as rampant corruption and official abuse erode public confidence. Rumors spread quickly online that Qian had been killed to stop his persistent attempts to lobby the government on behalf of his village. Angry essays circulated on the Internet, and academics, activists and journalists organized independent probes.

Police ruled Qian's death a traffic accident and the Yueqing People's Court on Tuesday found the driver of truck, Fei Liangyu, guilty of causing the accident by driving without a license and overloading his truck.

Fei was sentenced to three and a half years' imprisonment, said Si Weijiang, a lawyer representing Qian's father, Qian Shunnan. "The trial was conducted in a hasty fashion and many doubts about the case remain," Si said. He declined to elaborate.

At least two witnesses initially said they saw four men beat the tall and sturdy 53-year-old Qian to the ground and hold him while the truck crushed him to death. Police said they later recanted their accounts of the death.

In a sign the government is trying to appear transparent in its handling of a case that has garnered widespread attention, authorities said the trial was open to the public and state television carried highlights of the proceedings on its national midday bulletin. Among them was the emergence of new evidence: video footage from a recording device on Qian's watch, which he was wearing when he died.

Family members reported that they continued to face pressure from the authorities not to speak publicly about Qian's death.

Qian Shuangping, the village leader's daughter-in-law, said most of the family did not attend the trial: "There's no use in going anyway. They are not interested in what we have to say." She declined to comment further, saying her phone line was tapped and she could not speak freely.

Qian's death is the latest violent incident to touch a nerve among the Chinese public, angry over official corruption and abuse of power, including unfair seizure of farmers' land for development.

Qian, a poorly educated but entrepreneurial farmer, became a hero to the villagers he served by lobbying the government for fair compensation after it seized village land six years ago to build the large power plant. He was arrested three times, his daughter-in-law said, and each time returned to the fray with popular support.