A Chinese Human Rights Lawyer's Ordeal

Ni Yulan, 49, is a human rights lawyer who defended the rights of forcibly relocated families, but who has herself become a petitioner fighting for justice as well as a Beijing resident who has lost her home and health.

Although she has become a symbol for human rights campaigners and a documentary has been made that features her, she has been so crippled by police beatings that she can no longer stand without crutches and is usually confined to a wheelchair. And, although her ordeal has been more horrific, it is what happens all too often to human rights lawyers in China.

He Yang, who shot the documentary Emergency Shelter, said he turned his camera from ethnic minorities to human right lawyers such as Ni because he shares their values and values their rare qualities.

"The human rights lawyers really stand out," he said, "they are idealists and humanists, they are sympathetic towards other people, while the general public only cares about their own interests," he said. "Ni's experience reflects the typical condition of human right lawyers, petitioners, forced eviction victims and homeless people. In China, there are few people like them, who have the guts to resist the authorities."

"I'll hang on and be strong," Ni said, sitting on a Beijing hotel bed where she and her retired middle-school teacher husband Dong Jiqin, 57, have been against their will since June 16. In pajamas donated by a friend, Dong looked tired and cautious about any knock on the door.

The circumstances of their hotel lodging are unclear. Ni and Dong said police put them there under house arrest. The hotel staff wants them to pay or leave. The couple refuse to pay or leave, saying they are there because police put them there.

Ni hasn't slept in her real home in Xicheng district's Qianzhang Hutong for two years and couldn't even if she were allowed because its demolition was finished in November of 2008.

The demolition began on April 15 of that year when 20 thugs showed up without legal papers. Dong said he had found a demolition notice from the Xicheng district government on their front door and that nobody came to talk to them about compensation. Most of their neighbors had already moved away with compensation of 6,800 yuan (US$1,000) per square meter.

In the beginning

Ni came to police attention because she had defended Falun Gong practitioners in 2001 and also overturned a family property dispute, said Liu Wei, her attorney. But her troubles really began in late 2001 when, as part of the 2008 Olympics facelift and to improve housing conditions, old houses in hutongs, Beijing's famed narrow home-lined alleys, were scheduled to be destroyed. Ni, a 1978 graduate of Beijing Languages Institute, had become a lawyer in 1986 after graduating from China University of Political Science and Law. She threw her support behind Beijing homeowners unhappy with the Olympics makeover.

"Residents become increasingly discontented because many forced demolition cases occurred in late 2001, after China won the 2008 Olympic bid on July 13, 2001," Ni said.

On April 27, 2002, the family of a man named Zhao Shen was among about 8,000 households facing demolition in the Xiejinkou area. As a lawyer, Ni went to the scene support him by taking pictures as evidence. However, she said, two employees of the Xicheng district government's demolition office suddenly dragged her from the crowd, took her bag and camera and exposed the film. She said she was beaten unconscious, taken to the Xiejinkou police station and tied up.

At the station hours of beatings began, she said. "Eight police stamped on my back and one named Bian Weidong beat my neck with his elbow, swearing, ‘That's what you get for reporting on us and minding others' business! You asked for it!'" Ni recalled.

She said she begged for mercy but said that the police hit her more violently. "Since that moment, I never begged them for mercy again," Ni said. She said she was beaten for 15 continuous hours, lost consciousness and become incontinent.

They used glass to cut Ni's thighs and stomped on her feet. After 53hours, she was detained on charges of taking pictures and shouting in the police station.

After support by Wu Qing, a deputy to the Beijing Municipal People's Congress, Ni was released 75 days later, but her legal troubles didn't end. She was detained in September 2002 after protesting her treatment while in police custody to the Standing Committee of Beijing Municipal People's Congress.

On November 27, 2002, she was convicted of "disrupting public service" while "breaking through a cordon line, insulting the government and kicking police"– charges that stemmed from the April demolition protest, according to Beijing police. Her lawyer's license was also revoked.

Ni was jailed until July 12, 2003. Sleeping on a damp floor for nine months, her leg injuries worsened, along with other injuries to bones in her neck, waist and back, and Ni found she couldn't walk any longer without crutches.

Ni appealed to higher authorities for help, but the case was never reopened. She was under constant surveillance in her home from 2004 to 2006. During 2002 to 2008, her home of 470 square meters was gradually demolished and, according to Ni, she was beaten and harassed by thugs and police. On April 15, 2008 when men arrived to finish off the demolition a struggle began that sent her to jail a second time.

The accounts vary dramatically. Ni said she and her husband were taken to the Xinjiekou police station after trying to stop the workers from destroying their home.

The police say said the couple beat two workers and that Ni kicked one policeman and interrogator named Xiao Wei in the testicles. Zi Xiangdong, a spokesman from Bejing Security Bureau's press department, declined to comment on the case and Ni's allegations.

Closed trial

Liu Wei, Ni's attorney and the protagonist of Disbarment – a documentary – said Ni's trial was not open to the public and the verdict was unjust. She said the charge was false and that Ni had done nothing illegal.

"The videotape of her interrogation could explain everything, but the disc – a piece of major evidence - shown on the court was blank," Liu said. She added that it was impossible for Ni to have kicked Xiao in the groin with her injured legs.

Xiao presented a certificate from a hospital stating that his testicles were injured, but Liu said the piece of paper was questionable and wasn't valid.

It is very difficult to overturn this sort of case, but I believe Ni won't give up," Liu said.


Ni was sentenced to prison in 2009 for "disrupting public service." She got credit for one year served in police custody and served another year in the Beijing Women's Jail where her physical and health condition dramatically declined.

There, Ni said, she suffered inhumane treatment only because she refused to plead guilty. "I was not allowed to use the crutches so I had to crawl hundreds of meters each day to work in the prison's factory," she said. "We were like slaves."

Grueling conditions

The inmates worked five days a week from 8 am-9: 30 pm with each told to put 11,000 chopsticks into plastic bags or be punished. "The chopsticks pricked into my fingers and left scars all over my hands," she said, adding that she was frequently not allowed to go to the toilet or drink water. On weekends they performed lighter tasks, such as sewing.

Ni was finally allowed to use crutches after human rights officials from the US Embassy, who learned of her plight from her husband, urged the prison to treat her better. "Or I might have died in prison," she said. "I should thank friends and online users who supported me. International organizations and media also helped."

But a friend, Wang Yuqin, who picked her up from prison on April 14 this year noted: "Her health was not good," She looked very pale, and couldn't even stand with crutches."

With no permanent place to stay, Ni and Dong lived in a tent in Royal City Wall Relics Park near the Forbidden City for 50 days after being evicted from a hotel by police. Ten days of their stay were documented by He Yang in Emergency Shelter.

But barely a month later, on June 16, she and her husband were evicted from the park by police and detained for six hours as more than 20 intellectuals, students and NGO workers gathered outside the police station and pressured for their release.

Still fighting

Ni and her husband are now in the hotel where Internet publicity and films such as Emergency Shelter have lessened some of the police pressure. She received about 10,000 yuan ($1,474) in donations from Internet users, according to her Twitter account. Years of imprisonment and suffering haven't broken her, despite her suffering, said her supporters.

Cui Weiping, a professor from Beijing Film Academy, who first screened Emergency Shelter in her home, wrote in her blog, "Ni is a beautiful lawyer with a strong will. Average people may feel sorry for someone but do nothing, while activists like her make a difference with real action."

Ni's work has already benefited some petitioners involved in relocation cases who were reasonably compensated with her help, said Wang, her friend who picked her up upon her release from prison. "No matter how hard it is, she is always optimistic, otherwise, she couldn't have survived the imprisonment."

Ni said she believes she could still see justice done for her if she pursues it through legal means.

"We abided by the laws while the police violated them. If we reflect the problem in proper ways, their mistakes should be corrected and we will be proved innocent," she said. "I'll continue to appeal through judicial means."