Beijing-based lawyer and rights campaigner Ni Yulan, who is crippled after alleged police mistreatment, went on trial Thursday charged with fraud over her campaign to provide legal aid to people facing property seizures by the government.
She is the third activist in a week to be prosecuted amid calls from Chinese premier Wen Jiabao for the government to protect land rights of farmers following rising protests by villagers over illegal land grabs.
Rights groups have called on the government to release Ni, crippled as a result of beatings in police detention, and her husband Dong Jiqin, who is charged alongside her for "causing a disturbance" after their Beijing guesthouse cut off their electricity.
The couple's lawyer Cheng Hai told reporters that the couple had pleaded not guilty to the charges, and that Ni had spent much of the trial lying on a bed in the courtroom due to her poor health.
Journalists and diplomats who tried to attend the four-hour trial were refused access amid tight security at the western Beijing court building.
Cheng added that the couple's daughter Dong Xuan had testified on her parents' behalf, but that no verdict had been reached, before being escorted away by police.
Ni, a trained lawyer who fought her family's eviction from their Beijing home, was sentenced to a year in jail in 2002 for "obstructing official business" and for two years in 2008 for "harming public property." Her license to practice law was revoked in 2002.
Ni and Dong say they have never been compensated for the loss of their home, and have been homeless since Ni's release from a two-year jail sentence in April 2010.
Amnesty International said in statement that Ni's kneecaps 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," the group's Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi said.
Ni and her supporters say the charges against her and Dong are a form of official retaliation for her years of activism, in particular her high-profile struggle on behalf of evictees who lost their homes to make way for property projects linked to the 2008 Olympics.
Over the past week, rights activists Chen Wei and Chen Xi were sentenced separately by courts to nine and 10 years in prison respectively for "subversion."
Ni's trial came a day after Premier Wen warned rural officials that they should start to respect land contracts held by farming communities.
Under China's responsibility system, rural households sign 30-year leases for the tenure of their farmland, but many complain that local officials ignore such agreements when taking over land for lucrative property developments.
"No one is empowered to deprive such rights," Wen warned a conference on rural governance. "We can no longer sacrifice farmers' land property rights to reduce costs of urbanization and industrialization."
Local officials should respect farmers' wishes and make their decisions "more realistically," Wen was widely quoted as saying in official media.
Earlier this month, residents of the rebel Guangdong village of Wukan called off a planned protest march after winning concessions from the government, as villagers in a similar dispute nearby said police had started arresting those who took part in recent land protests.
Wukan villagers were demanding a probe into alleged official corruption surrounding the sale of local farmland and the return of the body of a fellow protester, defying threats of force from officials as thousands of armed police encircled the area.
But last-minute negotiations with local officials yielded promises that their demands would be met. Authorities on Wednesday annulled the results of the last village elections, paving the way for a fresh poll by villagers anxious to elect their own representatives.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.