Reuters International

Lin Zuluan smiles during vote counting before being elected as village chief in Wukan, southern Chinese province of Guangdong March 3, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

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By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The former head of a Chinese village once dubbed a symbol of grassroots democracy was sentenced on Thursday to three years' imprisonment, Hong Kong media reported, triggering anger and fresh protests in the village.

The ruling follows victories by several pro-independence candidates in Hong Kong's first major election since democracy protests in 2014, spurring a warning by China this week that any independence would damage the city's security and prosperity.

Lin Zuluan, 72, was jailed by a court in the southern city of Foshan for three years and one month, and fined 400,000 yuan (44,913.54 pounds)on several charges, including accepting bribes, Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper said.

Many residents of the fishing village of Wukan, about a four-hour drive northeast of Hong Kong, were outraged and fresh unrest was likely, said a villager contacted by Reuters.

"It's definitely not just the sentence," added the villager, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "He didn't do anything wrong and he wasn't even able to hire his own lawyer. The village will fight this."

Red notices posted around the village called for shops and markets to close and urged residents to rise up in support of Lin, he said.

Huang Shunxing, an official of Foshan's People's Court, said he was not aware of Lin's case. Reuters could not reach Lin's relatives and associates by mobile telephone to seek comment.

Wukan made global headlines in 2011, with a protest against corrupt former village leaders and landgrabs that prompted provincial authorities to sack the former village chief and allow fresh polls, in which many protest leaders won seats.

In June, authorities arrested the democratically elected Lin, just days after he made a public appeal for a mass march against fresh illegal seizures of land.

In a televised confession after his arrest, Lin admitted accepting kickbacks, but many skeptical villagers dismissed the confession as having been forced, and defied authorities' warnings with mass demonstrations for several weeks this summer.

Authorities blocked at least two lawyers hired by Lin from taking on his case, his relatives have said.

In late 2014, Hong Kong's 79-day "umbrella revolution" brought chaos to the streets as protesters sought to press Beijing to allow full democracy in the former British colony.

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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