An elderly woman in southern China was exonerated eight years after being jailed for petitioning over a land dispute, in a rare court ruling in favour of a petitioner – people often seen as a source of social instability by the ruling Communist Party.

Guangdong’s high court said Zeng Xiuzhen, 72, had been acting within her rights when she complained about the compensation she had been offered from the buyers of her land, and it overturned a lower-court ruling convicting her for “extorting” money from them.

The ruling was handed down on Monday last week but the verdict only reached Zeng’s lawyer this Monday, Shanghai-based news outlet Thepaper.cn reported.

Fewer Chinese citizens filing petitions against authorities as Beijing tries to curb use

Beijing has clamped down on petitioning – a practice where Chinese air their grievances through letters and visits to the leadership – in recent years, and hundreds of petitioners have been found guilty of extortion after receiving compensation payments, usually from local authorities, when their land was sold for development.

In 2014 alone, there were more than 100 similar cases involving petitioners being jailed for extortion, according to an article by Wang Yong, a law professor with China University of Political Science and Law, on news website Caixin.

Since that total came from official sources which do not disclose all cases, Wang believed the real number would be even higher.

In cases where petitioners were found guilty of extortion, most of the defendants had received compensation payments of some sort, usually from local officials in return for them dropping their complaints.

Corruption at top rung of China’s ancient petition system sparks calls for reform

Zeng began lodging official complaints in 2006 after her land was sold by the village government – a deal she said was done illegally by local officials.

But her petitioning came to an end when she was found guilty by a court in Huizhou of accepting 150,000 yuan (US$23,400) in compensation for her land.

“There’s no evidence that Zeng actually asked for money,” her lawyer Ge Yongxi told the online news outlet.

“The high court also established that the sale was not done through legal channels and that Zeng was exercising her legal rights when she was petitioning.”

Petitioning can be risky in China as it can lead to retaliation from local officials, whose appraisals are heavily linked to their ability to maintain political stability. But many Chinese are willing to take the chance as a last resort to take on the authorities, usually from local government.

Although more petitioners have ended up in jail for their efforts in recent years, the first such case dates back to 2004, Wang said, when a Sino-Vietnamese war veteran was found guilty of extortion after he pressed for the benefits he was promised but never received for his part in the 1979 conflict.

Zeng was sentenced to four years’ jail in 2010 and released on bail two years later. After four years of further appeals, the Guangdong Higher People’s Court decided to review her case in 2016.

Hers is not the only high-profile conviction to be overturned in China recently. Last month, the Supreme People’s Court declared innocent Zhang Wenzhong, founder of one of China’s biggest retailers Wumart, after he was convicted and jailed a decade ago for bribery and fraud.

But the authorities have at the same time also tightened their grip on rights lawyers and legal activism. That includes the “709” crackdown three years ago, starting on “709” – July 9, 2015 – that saw some 300 rights lawyers and ­activists detained, interrogated or threatened in what some China watchers have called the harshest crackdown on human rights and civil society in decades.

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