Demolition case ruling could set milestone

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A Beijing court on Thursday heard a forced demolition case that, depending on the final verdict, could lead to a rare ruling in which government power is limited.

If the court decides to side with the property owners, it would be among the few cases nationwide in which authorities lost a lawsuit for pulling down a house without going through legal procedures.

Cui Ruhui, with his niece Cui Fengling, claim that Dasungezhuang township demolished the family's newly built house in March, despite the fact that the family was still waiting for the results of a review, conducted by the capital's Shunyi district government, of the demolition order.

Cui Fengling said it was against the Administrative Coercion Law, which took effect on Jan 1 and requires governments to suspend forcible measures, including demolition, if the measure is under administrative review. The only exception, the law states, is in cases involving public emergencies.

"We applied for administrative review by Shunyi on March 22, but the township government came in anyway at 6 the next morning," she said. "My uncle and I were in the house and were forced off the property."

The plaintiffs' lawyer, Liu Changsong, has asked the township to compensate the family's costs, including 430,000 yuan ($67,520) for land leveling and construction, and 10,000 yuan for emotional damage.

The authority, in response, said it did not know the family had applied to the district for an administrative review, since Cui "only submitted the required materials on the last day of the period open for such applications".

The township further argued that the house, a five-room bungalow, was built on a portion of arable land where construction is strictly prohibited.

To support the claim, the government handed in a certificate issued by Shunyi's land resources authority, which confirms that the disputed land is part of a national plan to protect farmland from being converted to construction use.

Liu, however, said the land was traditionally allocated to the family but was unattended and gradually grew into a dumping ground.

The panel of three judges, after hearing more than three hours of cross-examination on Thursday, did not specify a date to continue the trial or deliver a verdict.

However, legal professionals said that if the court rules in support of the plaintiffs, the case will become a milestone.

The coercion law is expected to limit and standardize government initiatives in future.

The law, the country's principal regulation to curb government power and prevent abuse of power, was passed June 2011 after undertaking five readings by the National People's Congress Standing Committee, the top legislature. It was among the most long-awaited laws in China, having taken more than 20 years to complete.

The law establishes a set of procedures for governments when it is about to carry out forcible measures and outlaws activities such as the use of violence, intimidation or carrying out coercive measures at night or during holidays.

But lawmakers have admitted it takes time for authorities to adapt to the new regulation, which runs against some existing stipulations and government practice.

Xin Chunying, deputy director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC Standing Committee, said in an earlier interview the top legislature has been cleaning up and modifying regulations that run contradictory to the law.

Han Dayuan, a law professor at Renmin University of China, said the cleaning up could be difficult because governments will be reluctant to give up the use of force, often an "easier way to solve problems".

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