First the police crippled Ni Yulan’s legs. Then the authorities took away her license to practice law. Later, while she was serving time in jail, demolition crews tore down the courtyard house that had been in her family for two generations.
Freed from prison in 2010 but unable to walk, she ended up living in a Beijing park with her husband for nearly two months, until unflattering publicity led local officials to move them into a cheap hotel.
Their predicament will most likely take a turn for the worse in the coming weeks, when a court in the capital’s Xicheng district is expected to sentence the couple on charges that include “picking quarrels” and disturbing public order. “I’m afraid the sentence this time will be especially heavy,” their lawyer, Cheng Hai, said after their hearing on Thursday.
The case of Ms. Ni and Mr. Dong highlights the ways officials can leverage the legal system against those they deem to be nuisances. Ms. Ni, 51, who received a law degree from China University of Political Science and Law, drew the attention of the authorities in 2002, when she used her expertise to help neighbors in Xicheng fighting eviction, part of the government’s sweeping effort to remake the capital ahead of the Olympics.
Detained after she tried to photograph demolition crews, she said she was kicked and pummeled over the course of 15 hours, leaving her incontinent and unable to walk. She was released after 75 days but continued her legal work while also seeking redress for the beating. Over the next few years, she was arrested twice more and convicted of “obstructing public business.”
During her three years in prison, she said, she endured frequent indignities: An officer once urinated on her face, she said, and prison officials often took away her crutches, forcing her to crawl from her cell to the prison workshop. One of her tasks included cleaning toilets.
Her daughter, too, said she was subjected to government surveillance. “The police followed me to school and watched me all day so I would experience the fear,” said the daughter, Dong Xuan, now 27.
During their trial last week, Ms. Ni, thin and weak, was propped up on a makeshift bed, an oxygen mask tethered to her face. Outside, a heavy police presence prevented family members, supporters and foreign diplomats from entering the courtroom. Their lawyer, Mr. Cheng, claims the proceedings were illegal because 9 of his 10 witnesses were barred from testifying.
Reached by phone, a spokesman for the Xicheng District People’s Court declined to answer questions about the case.
Cases like this are part of what convinces me that the Communist Party isn’t anywhere near as strong as it looks, in the long term. Does a secure Party need to go to such lengths to attack a women whose crime is lawyering and who needs an oxygen mask to survive?