A former lawyer and veteran activist left disabled by past police mistreatment went on trial Thursday, the third dissident in a week to be prosecuted as China presses a sweeping crackdown to deter popular uprisings like the ones that shook the Arab world.
Looking thin and frail, Ni Yulan lay on a bed and used an oxygen machine to help her breathe during the hearing, her daughter, Dong Xuan, said afterward. Dong said she told the court about her mother's run-ins with police since 2002 and how police beatings left her crippled.
"Seeing my mother lying on that bed, it made my heart ache," Dong said.
Ni is charged with fraud, accused of falsifying facts to steal property. She is also charged, along with her husband, with causing a disturbance at a hotel where they had been detained by police.
Ni and her supporters deny the charges and say she is being punished for her years of activism, especially her advocacy for people forced from their homes to make way for the fast-paced real estate development that remade Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. Her outspoken defense earned her the enmity of officials and developers. Her family's house in an old neighborhood in the capital's center was also razed, and the couple became homeless.
The couple's trial comes near the end of a year that has seen Chinese authorities use disappearances, house arrest, lengthy prison terms and other means to prevent activists from drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring protests that unseated autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
In the past week, two longtime democracy and rights activists, Chen Wei and Chen Xi, were separately sentenced by courts in southern and central China to nine and 10 years in prison for posting essays on the Internet that the government deemed subversive.
Referring to the two cases, an editorial published in China's state-run Global Times newspaper on Thursday expressed support for the convictions.
"To firmly convict and punish a handful of people who instigate subversion of state power is a must. It is a safeguard for state security and a safeguard for a normal environment for public opinion," the newspaper said.
Like those two campaigners, the 51-year-old Ni has been previously jailed, twice in her case. In a June 2010 interview with The Associated Press, Ni described abuse she suffered at the hands of police, saying that guards have beaten her, insulted her and urinated on her face. While in detention in 2002, police pinned her down and kicked her knees until she was unable to walk, she said.
While serving the second prison term of two years, Ni said she was deprived of her crutches and had to crawl up and down five stories and across the prison yard every day for months.
Ni said the authorities were trying to silence her because in trying to defend those who had been wrongly evicted from their homes, she had found evidence of wrongdoing by Beijing officials in lucrative land deals.
"When they were making me crawl in prison, they were basically trying to kill me so that they can silence me," Ni said in the 2010 interview. "Isn't it just because I'm trying to tell the truth?"
In a sign of the government's sensitivity over the case, Thursday's trial took place under heavy security. Dozens of uniformed police sealed off and patrolled roads around the courthouse, rounding up journalists and about a dozen diplomats from the United States and Europe and taking them to a small office across from the building.
Ni told the court she was not guilty, said her lawyer Cheng Hai, outside the courthouse. Cheng spoke only briefly as he was being pushed away from reporters by plainclothes men who did not identify themselves.
Dong said she was happy to see her parents for the first time in the nearly nine months but she was not optimistic about the outcome of the trial, citing the couple's lengthy detention and the heavy security presence at the courthouse.
"This is definitely not a normal trial procedure, so I feel the risk of conviction is high," she said.
Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at http://twitter.com/gillianwong