A Chinese activist who has fought for the rights of people forcibly evicted from their homes was sentenced by a Beijing court Tuesday to two years and eight months in jail for unruly behavior and fraud.
Ni Yulan, a veteran activist left disabled by past police mistreatment, was sentenced along with her husband, Dong Jiqin, who was jailed for two years. The punishment was handed down amid heavy security, with police ringing the courthouse and access roads to the area cordoned off.
The couple were arrested last year, when China carried out a sweeping crackdown to deter popular uprisings such as the ones that shook the Arab world.
They were convicted of causing a disturbance at a hotel where they had been detained by police. The court said the couple failed to pay 69,972 yuan ($11,100) in hotel bills between June 2010 and April 2011. Ni also was convicted of posing as a lawyer and receiving 5,000 yuan through deceit ($795).
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 outspokenness earned her the enmity of officials and developers.
Although Ni is not as well known internationally as some Chinese dissidents, she has been the target of "sustained police persecution" for the past decade, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Hong Kong-based organization. In early 2011, then U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman visited Ni to show support for her.
The European Union issued a statement in front of the court Tuesday saying it was "deeply concerned" about Ni's sentence and that because of her poor health she should be released immediately.
"The European Union is preoccupied with the deterioration of the situation for human rights defenders in China and will continue to follow these cases attentively," the statement said.
Foreign diplomats and reporters were kept outside the courthouse, but a court official _ accompanied by a translator _ read out the court decision to them in a meeting room across the street.
The couple's daughter, Dong Xuan, said she was allowed in the court for the verdict but was later taken away and briefly detained by police.
Ni's sentence was relatively light compared to those handed down late last year to 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.
Ni has been jailed twice before _ first in 2002 and again in 2008 for "obstructing official business."
In a June 2010 interview with The Associated Press, she described abuse she suffered at the hands of police, saying that guards had 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 her second prison term, 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.