BEIJING A Chinese court sentenced a disabled lawyer renowned for defending people evicted from their homes to two years and eight months in prison on Tuesday for causing a disturbance and fraud, Beijing's latest use of a controversial law to stifle dissent.
The lawyer, Ni Yulan, and her husband, Dong Jiqin, were detained in April 2011 and later convicted of the charges. Rights activists contend the charges were trumped up in an effort to silence the couple.
Dong was given two years in prison, also for "causing a disturbance", a court spokesman, who declined to be named, told reporters outside the courthouse in a western suburb of Beijing.
Ni's imprisonment is the latest signal of the ruling Communist Party's determination to stifle China's civil rights movement, which is reeling from the jailing of several dissidents in recent months.
Prosecutors alleged that Ni, who is disabled and wheelchair-bound, and Dong had "willfully occupied" a room at a hotel, according to the court spokesman. Ni had previously called it a "black jail", where they were forced to stay in 2010 after their home was demolished in 2008.
A "black jail" is an informal detention site, such as a hotel or government guesthouse, used to hold protesters and petitioners without resorting to legal procedures.
Ni has been an outspoken advocate for Chinese residents forced from their homes to make way for development, often for what residents say is grossly inadequate compensation.
The court spokesman said the couple had not paid 69,972 yuan ($11,100) in hotel fees, had stopped visitors from registering at the hotel, had torn up the hotel's registration book and had abused the hotel staff.
"They refused to change their room or check out so normal operation of the hotel was seriously disturbed and huge economic losses were caused," said the spokesman, who declined to give his name.
Prosecutors also said Ni had swindled a person out of 5,000 yuan for "fabricating her identity as a lawyer", the spokesman said. Ni was also fined 1,000 yuan but her lawyers said she did not break any laws.
"The verdict was unfair and illegal," lawyer Cheng Hai told Reuters. Cheng said it is likely Ni will appeal against the conviction and sentence within 10 days.
Ni's daughter, Dong Xuan, told Reuters she thought the verdict "was extremely unreasonable". She was allowed to attend the reading of the verdict but was then spirited away from the courthouse in a police car.
Dong Xuan said her mother has had no access to medical help during her time in detention. She believes Ni has a suspected neck tumor.
More than a dozen diplomats gathered outside the courthouse to wait for the verdict, along with a heavy security presence.
"We are particularly concerned by Mrs. Ni's poor health and ask for her immediate release," Raphael Droszewski, from the European Union's Beijing mission, told reporters. He said the EU is "preoccupied with the deterioration of the situation for human rights defenders in China".
Ni was among dozens of rights activists who were detained in early 2011 when fears of contagion from the Arab Spring revolts triggered a crackdown by China's security apparatus.
She was left disabled by a police beating in 2002 after filming the forced demolition of a client's home and was then jailed. Ni was again jailed and beaten by police in 2008 for defending the rights of people evicted from their homes to make way for Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics.
Because she was beaten so badly, Ni could only crawl on the floor every day in prison until she was visited by U.S. embassy officers, who gave her crutches, she told Reuters previously. She was released in April 2010.
In February 2011, then-U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman visited Ni in the hotel, where she said water and electricity had been cut off by the authorities. ($1 = 6.3085 Chinese yuan)
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Paul Tait)