The trial of Chinese citizen journalist Li Tingyu began on Thursday, US-backed Radio Free Asia has reported.

She and boyfriend Lu Yuyu have been detained since last year for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a charge often used to silence critics of the Communist Party. They are being held at a detention centre in the city of Dali in China’s southwestern Yunnan province.

li tingyu
Li Tingyu. Photo: China Change.

RFA reported that Lu Yuyu’s lawyers Xiao Yunyang and Wang Zongyue were told in Dali on Thursday that Li’s trial began in the morning. The lawyers reportedly found out after coming across heavy police presence outside the Dali People’s Court.

RFA also cited a relative of Li as briefly saying on the telephone that the trial had begun. “After some time she will be home,” the unnamed relative added.

Neither the court’s website nor Chinese state media have reported the opening of the trial.

See also: Chinese journalist held on ‘picking quarrels’ charge beaten by prison guards, says lawyer

Li and Lu ran a tracking network named “Not News,” which has been reporting and distributing news of unreported protests in China via Twitter, Blogspot, YouTube and Weibo since 2013. They disappeared last June, and formal arrests for them were issued in Dali the following month.

Last month, the Dali People’s Procuratorate announced that the couple would face separate trials rather than joint proceedings.

lu yuyu
Li Tingyu (L) and Lu Yuyu (R). Photo: Voice of America.

Li was a student at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University when she became involved in citizen journalism.

Lu is a more experienced activist, having been expelled from cities including Shanghai, Shenzhen and Fuzhou, according to a friend writing in Initium Media. The current progress of his case is unclear.

Lawyer dismissal

Li’s original lawyer, Ge Yongxi, was not informed about Thursday’s proceedings. He wrote on Twitter on the same day that he received a package sent from the Dali police containing a letter purportedly written by Li, dismissing him as her lawyer.

“I cannot verify whether the letter is written by Li herself, and cannot determine whether the content of the letter represents Li’s true will,” he said.

Ge was prevented from visiting Li in detention earlier this week. RFA reported that the Dali authorities had appointed new lawyers for Li.

Ge Yongxi China Human Rights Lawyer
Ge Yongxi. Photo: Twitter.

Ge told RFA on Thursday it was possible that Li would be released under a suspended sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.

He added that her sentence would likely have no impact on boyfriend Lu’s proceedings, given that their cases were separated.

The couple were bestowed with the citizen journalism prize from press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders last November for their coverage of protests in China.

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.