Supporters of Ni Yulan rallied outside the courthousein Beijing on Thursday before being removed by police [Reuters]

A prominent human-rights lawyer has gone on trial in China facing charges of "inciting a disturbance" for doing legal defence work for farmers who have had their land seized by government officials.

Ni Yulan and her husband, Dong Jiqin, were detained in April along with hundreds of other activists, but their trial lacks transparency.

Early on Thursday morning, police vans brought Ni to a courthouse in Beijing, but journalists who arrived to cover the trial and diplomats who had been sent to observe, were quickly stopped from filming, ushered into a building across the street and told they would not be allowed to film or report.

"This is the third such trial during the holiday season, prompting a lot of human rights observers to say that it is fast becoming a Chinese Christmas tradition to have sentences and jailings during this period," Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan reported from Beijing.

Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan reports on China's crackdown on political dissenters

"They posit that it is because the West is indeed not looking at the news cycle as much during this period.

"The last two sentences have been quite harsh. One person was sentenced to 10 years in prison and another sentenced to nine years in prison for the crime of subversion."

Ni's supporters waited in the light snow, occasionally gesturing to the journalists across the street, but were eventually moved away by police.

A court spokesperson confirmed that Ni Yulan was "on trial for fraud", and that her trial had begun at 9:30am local time (0130 GMT).

Looking thin and frail, Ni Yulan lay on a bed and used an oxygen machine to help her breathe during the hearing, her daughter, Dong Xuan, said afterwards.

One supporter and acquaintance of Ni Yulan, who spoke to the Associated Press news agency outside the police cordon, said that she had seen the same thing happen to numerous other human-rights lawyers who tried to defend Chinese against the legal system.

Ni and her supporters deny the charges and say she is being punished for her years of activism, especially her advocacy for people forced from their homes to make way for the fast-paced real estate development that remade Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.

Her family's house in an old neighbourhood in Beijing's centre was also razed, and the couple became homeless.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies