Darkness at noon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 January, 2011, 12:00am

Ni Yulan sits on her bed tapping away at her laptop as her husband Dong Jiqin skitters about the dingy hotel room lighting candles before the last rays of the sun fade on a recent grey, cold day in Beijing. It is the 37th day since Beijing police cut off the electricity to the couple's room, and the 16th day without water. The disconnections are an attempt to drive the couple from the dilapidated hotel that police once confined them to.

As a visitor enters the room, Ni sits up in bed and manoeuvres sidewise. The crutches leaning against the wall beside her are a reminder that this brave woman was permanently crippled by Beijing police in 2002 for taking up the cases of some of the nation's most deprived citizens.

The floor is piled with goods donated by grateful people that Ni, a prominent human rights lawyer, has helped for free. Every day, petitioners show up at her hotel, many seeking legal advice from the woman they have heard about through word of mouth.

'A few petitioners and internet users came by recently and brought plenty of water, candles, fruit, clothes, shoes, blankets and electric lamps,' Ni says. 'They said they were going home for Lunar New Year and were worried we didn't have enough things.'

Ni says she relies on the kindness of strangers and friends to make it through each day.

Her computer battery lasts less than three hours, and without electricity, she can't recharge it. However, the husband of an imprisoned Falun Gong practitioner has given her an electric charger that provides an additional five or six hours of computer power a day.

When both units run out of power, someone must take the devices out for recharging. Her daughter has given her a wireless card, which enables her to get online. Her husband, brother and daughter carry buckets of water to the hotel so the wheelchair-bound Ni can bathe.

While the situation for the couple is bleak, it's a welcome turn of events from last April, when the two lived for about 50 days in a tent in a Beijing park following Ni's release from a second stint in prison.

Ni's situation is shocking, even in a country where appalling human rights violations are common.

Her story began in 2002, when she was arrested for helping Beijing residents evicted from homes about to be demolished. She was taken to a nearby police station and tortured for several days before being being sent to jail for a year.

Released in 2003, the undaunted Ni continued to take up human rights cases, including religious persecution and the forced forced evictions ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Before the Games opened, Ni was arrested again and returned to prison for another two years on charges of interfering with public administration - while challenging the demolition of her own house.

When she was released from prison last April, the homeless Ni and Dong spent a brief time in a small hotel before being forced on to the street by Beijing police, who also blocked the couple from renting a place or staying with friends.

Last April, the couple took refuge in in the Huangchenggen Relics Park in Beijing, living in a tent donated by a supporter.

Ni became famous last year after Emergency Shelter, a film by documentary maker He Yang, brought her case to the attention of the world. Tens of thousands have seen the film, He says, which shows Ni and Dong Jiqin living rough in the Beijing park.

It highlighted a bitter story that has attracted widespread sympathy and respect for the lawyer.

Ni describes in the film how police broke her feet and kneecaps during 50 hours of torture.

'I could hear my bones cracking,' she says matter-of-factly. 'I lost all feeling. That was the end of them.'

Last June 16, during the Dragon Boat Festival, several dozen people turned up at the park to show support for Ni.

Nervous police whisked the couple away to a local police station and later that night put them up in the small hotel where they remain today.

By November, police - possibly feeling interest had died down tried to force couple out of the hotel and back onto the street. Ni and Dong, however, refused to budge.

'They say we haven't paid the hotel bill, so we have to leave,' Ni says. 'But we were taken here by the police - it wasn't our idea. The police still have not given us a reason [for our detention] or taken any legal steps against us.'

Ni says she has tried to reason with the police, but that whenever she and her husband go to the police station, the senior officers disappear.

'They want me to leave this place and live on the street. They don't want to resolve the issue,' she says.

'Many petitioners come to see me every day, so I don't go out much,' she adds. Police monitoring the hotel often make people register before visiting her.

She's afraid to leave the hotel room empty for fear the police will come in and remove her belongings. When she visits the doctor, her brother or daughter will stay in the room. They've added an extra latch on the door for added protection, she says.

Dong takes a visitor into the hallway and points to two large cameras that have been mounted on both ends of the hallway, apparently pointing in the direction of Ni's door.

Ni says some supporters have insisted the couple stay with them, but she politely turns down such invitations, realising the police would never allow it. 'I'm a sensitive person,' she says.

She's also afraid police are setting a trap for her and her husband.

'If we leave here, they may say we have run away and might issue a warrant for our arrest,' says Ni. 'We're waiting for a legal document to release us.'

'This could only happen in China,' she adds. 'These officials are breaking the law - this is a lawless country.'

A Western human rights lawyer says Ni believes the police would allow the couple to move into a flat far from the centre of Beijing, which would reduce Ni's influence. The lawyer says, however, the couple would not agree to this, preferring to stay in Beijing where Ni can remain active and influential.

According to the foreign lawyer, Ni has been helping a lot people including petitioners from around the country and relatives of jailed or persecuted practitioners of Falun Gong, the controversial spiritual movement that the Communist Party regards as an evil cult.

Ni is also playing an important role passing information and reports of abuses around the Internet, the lawyer says.

'If they allowed them to rent in Dongcheng district, close to the centre, it would be taken as a concession, a small defeat, and Ni would consider that a victory,' the lawyer says.

'That would be a relevant consideration [for the police]. So in that way, the police have manoeuvred themselves into a bad situation.'

The Western lawyer visited the couple recently and noticed there was nothing more than a 'feeble lock' to keep the police out of their hotel room.

' 'The police obviously could have broken in and taken them away, but they haven't,' the lawyer says.

The fact that the police have not acted against the couple may represent a change in strategy, the lawyer adds.

'If you put someone in jail, you have to formally convict them and that comes with a certain public relations cost,' the lawyer says.

'It's something that will be reported and criticised. Maybe they don't want to do that.

'Many people have been noting that the use of extra-legal detentions, threats and violence is increasing. By taking a more restrained approach, the authorities can pretend Ni's detention didn't happen at all.'

Life remains a constant struggle in the hotel, where police constantly harass the couple. But Ni remains surprisingly upbeat, showing no sign that the pressure has gotten to her.

While talking, the hotel door opens, and Dong and Beibei, Ni's 26-year-old daughter, walk into the room, carrying styrofoam lunchboxes, the smell of stir-fried dishes filling the air.

Ni remains active, meeting numerous petitioners every day in her hotel room. She also uses online social networks to keep in touch with lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, petitioners and others, which adds to her fame and influence.

She says that anything she posts on her Facebook account is also sent to Twitter, Google and her microblog.

Ni says she's giving petitioners legal advice to bring their cases to court and she's taught many how to use social networking tools to publicise their predicaments.

When a Communist Party chief was accused of rigging an election last July, the villagers went straight to Ni, who put them in touch with human rights lawyers and the Chinese media, some of whom actually wrote about the incident.

Ni launched her microblog on January 25 and in less than two days it won more than 21,000 fans.

The home page shows a small photograph of a woman dressed in prison garb crying, her face contorted with pain. The photo is of Ni herself, taken while she was in prison and smuggled to the outside world.

'This is the biggest news on the microblog scene today,' says He Yang, the documentary maker, who says he's been very moved by some of the responses from her fans.

Ni says some that some petitioners who cannot make it home for the Spring Festival have promised to come by see her over the holiday, the most important one of the year for Chinese families, and she seems pleased by this.

She suddenly changes the subject to announce cheerfully that she's being treated by a traditional Chinese bone setter.

Although the treatment is 'very painful', it is also 'extremely effective' and she can now get around more easily.

She smiles widely, reaches across for her crutches, and then pulls her self up to a standing position.

She then slowly walks around the room with the crutches as if walking for the first time.

'It's been almost nine years,' she says, without completing the sentence.

'I can withstand anything because so many people support me,' she says. 'I feel I've chosen the right path.'

Rough treatment

Beijing police have given no explanation why Ni and her husband are being detained

The number of days the couple had been without electricity when they spoke to the Sunday Morning Post: 37