China: Housing Rights Defender Jailed

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China: Housing Rights Defender Jailed
By: Josh Chin, Olivia Geng, China Real Time
10 April 2012

A disabled former lawyer who has clashed repeatedly with authorities while assisting people illegally evicted from their homes was sentenced on Tuesday to two years and eight months in prison for fraud and “creating a disturbance,” her attorney said.

The sentence marks the latest sign that the Chinese government will continue to crack down hard on dissent in the run-up to a once-in-a-decade leadership transition that begins at the end of this year. It also illustrates how property rights continue to be a hot-button issue in China as rights groups and even the central government contend with land grabs by local governments.

Ni Yulan, 52, was sentenced on Tuesday by the Xicheng District Court in Beijing, according to her lawyer, Cheng Hai. The same court sentenced Ms. Ni’s husband, Dong Jiqin, to two years in prison for creating a disturbance, said Mr. Cheng.

The lawyer says he plans to advise the couple to appeal.

If the sentence is upheld, it would mark the third time Ms. Ni has been imprisoned. She was first detained in 2002 while documenting the demolition of a neighbor’s house, which was being removed as part of Beijing’s makeover ahead of the 2008 Olympics. While in custody the first time, she says, police beat her severely, leaving her unable to walk without the aid of crutches.

“They put my leg on a long bench and made the security guard use his entire weight to push it down until it cracked,” she recalled in a 2010 documentary “Emergency Shelter.”

She subsequently spent a year in prison and was stripped of her lawyer’s license.

Tuesday’s sentencing comes almost exactly a year after Ms. Ni and Mr. Dong were detained as part of a wave of arrests in the wake of online calls in China for a Jasmine Revolution modeled on the Arab Spring protests. The pair went on trial in a closed hearing in December.

The couple was charged with creating a disturbance for hanging a banner outside their residence, and Ms. Ni was additionally charged with lying about still being a lawyer as a ploy to win sympathy for her case, according to the rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. They pleaded not guilty.

The sentencing took about 10 minutes, Mr. Cheng said, adding that the sentences were about what he expected. “They’re innocent, so any prison term was bound to be long,” he said.

Calls to the Xicheng District Court press office rang unanswered Tuesday.

The political atmosphere in Beijing has grown particularly tense as the Communist Party prepares to hand power to a new generation of leaders amid widespread public frustration over abuse of power, and in particular over efforts by government officials to seize land for lucrative real estate developments.

Last year, a conflict over land grabs prompted residents of the southern fishing village of Wukan to revolt, leading to a stand-off with authorities that ended only when the village was allowed to elect an entirely new set of leaders. Discussion of the so-called “Wukan model” has since become a fixture of debates about whether and how the country should pursue reform as the country faces an end to the era of double-digit economic growth.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made a pointed call for better protection of rural residents’ land rights during a southern tour earlier this year, describing the arbitrary seizure of land as a “widespread problem” that was “triggering mass incidents.”

Conflicts over property seizures and forced evictions are even more sensitive in the capital, where property values are high and where residents often find themselves defending their homes against developers with high-level political backers.

Ms. Ni experienced that personally in 2008, when she was arrested and imprisoned for two years for protesting the demolition of her own home. On her release in 2010, she and her husband found themselves homeless and lived temporarily in a tent in a Beijing park.

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