China trial of activist couple ends without verdict

BEIJING - A Beijing court failed to reach a verdict Thursday after the trial of sickly Chinese rights activist Ni Yulan and her husband, who appeared before judges amid a spreading crackdown on dissent.

Ni and Dong Jiqin - who have long helped victims of land grabs - were detained in April as authorities rounded up scores of activists amid anonymous online calls for protests similar to those that swept across the Arab world.

They were charged with "picking quarrels, provoking trouble and willfully destroying private and public property as well as abusing other people repeatedly in aggravated circumstances", a court spokesman said.

The four-hour trial was closed to the press and foreign diplomats who tried to enter the courthouse in western Beijing.

The couple's lawyer Cheng Hai told journalists outside the courthouse that Ni, 51, and Dong pleaded not guilty to the charges, and that no verdict had been reached.

It was unclear when the court would announce a verdict, he said, as police officers tried to escort him away amid a strong security presence.

Ni spent much of the trial lying on a bed in the courtroom due to her poor health, Cheng said. The couple's daughter, Dong Xuan, testified on behalf of her parents, he added.

"At first when I saw my parents I was very happy, but seeing my mother lying on the bed made me feel bad," she told reporters.

Dong, believed to be in her late 20s, had not been allowed to see her parents since they were detained.

"She (Ni) has been detained for such a long time, you can see all the police that are here and it has been a very abnormal legal process, so I believe there is a very big chance she will be found guilty," Dong said.

According to the court spokesman, who refused to be named, Ni has also been charged with fraud and "fabricating facts".

Ni and Dong have provided legal assistance to numerous families around China who have been forcibly evicted from their homes in government-backed land requisitions.

Their battle to oppose the land grabs began in 2001 after their courtyard home in central Beijing was requisitioned and marked for demolition.

One village in southern China, Wukan, recently revolted against officialdom in protest at years of illegal land grabs by local Communist leaders. Talks with a senior official defused the standoff last week.

Thursday's trial came after a court in southwest China's Guizhou province Monday sentenced veteran activist Chen Xi - who was involved in the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protest movement - to 10 years in jail for subversion.

Another longtime dissident, Chen Wei, was jailed for nine years in Sichuan province on Friday, also for subversion.

The charge of subversion is often used to put away government critics - Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was convicted on the same charge in 2009 and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Trained as a lawyer, Ni was sentenced to a year in jail in 2002 for "obstructing official business" and for two years in 2008 for "harming public property" - charges brought against her as she tried to protect her home.

She was also disbarred in 2002. The couple say they have not been compensated for the loss of their home.

Amnesty International called for authorities to release the couple.

According to the rights group, Ni's knee caps and feet were broken when she was detained in 2002, and she has been confined to a wheelchair ever since.

"The Chinese authorities have made Ni Yulan's life unbearable, subjecting her to detention and beatings that have left her unable to walk," Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director, said in a statement.