BEIJING — Police officers on Monday evening released five female activists who were detained early last month in China after trying to start a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation, two lawyers representing the women said.
One of the lawyers, Liang Xiaojun, said police officers in western Beijing, where the five women were held for weeks, had to release the detainees after prosecutors decided not to immediately press criminal charges. The police had asked the prosecutors last week to charge all five women with organizing a crowd to disturb public order.
The women, who were freed on bail, are Li Tingting, 25; Wu Rongrong, 30; Zheng Churan, 25; Wei Tingting, 26; and Wang Man, 33. Mr. Liang said that an investigation into their activities was continuing, and that they would be monitored by the police for one year and could not travel without informing the authorities. The police can detain them again at any time or interrogate them further, he said.
Ms. Zheng, referring to herself using a nickname, left a message for the public on a social media chat program: “Hi all, I’m Big Rabbit. I’m back. Thank you all. I’ll contact you after I get some good rest. Thanks.”
Another lawyer, Wang Qiushi, said Ms. Wei had been taken earlier to Guangxi Province, in southern China, where her hometown is, and was being released in Nanning, the provincial capital. And Ms. Wu was released after the police in Hangzhou, a southeastern provincial capital, called her husband to the police station. Ms. Wu had initially been detained in Hangzhou, where she lives, before she was transferred to the Beijing detention center.
The detention of the women — now known to some as the Feminist Five — has inspired international condemnation of China, including from senior American politicians. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who on Sunday announced her candidacy for president of the United States, denounced the detentionslast week on Twitter. Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, has issued a critical statement. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said China should “immediately and unconditionally” free the five women.
“Each and every one of us has the right to speak out against sexual harassment and the many other injustices that millions of women and girls suffer around the world each and every day,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement. “We strongly support the efforts of these activists to make progress on these challenging issues, and we believe that Chinese authorities should also support them, not silence them.”
On Monday afternoon, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said that China had “lodged representations” with the United States over those comments and that “the Chinese legal authorities are handling this case in accordance with the law.”
The women were among 10 people detained in coordinated police raids in the cities of Beijing, Hangzhou and Guangzhou starting the evening of March 6, as the women were in the final stages of organizing a protest campaign timed to International Women’s Day on March 8. The campaign, promoted via WeChat, was to have taken place in cities across China, with people handing out leaflets and stickers on buses and subway cars to call attention to sexual harassment on public transportation.
Five of those detained were let go. The other five were held in the Haidian district of Beijing as the local police investigated them on suspicions of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and then later on the charge of organizing a crowd to disturb public order.
Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, said in an email, “It’s hard to see what about these particular individuals’ behavior — or intended actions — are so provocative to the government, but that’s precisely the point: to make it unclear to everyone what they can and can’t do and risk a ludicrously harsh response.”
Late last week, 10 family members and partners of the women sent a letterto the authorities pleading with them to release the women.
Wang Zheng, an associate professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, said in an interview posted online that the decision to persecute the five women was leading to wider fury aimed at the party-run system, since women’s rights activists now realize officials will not tolerate even their form of nonpolitical advocacy.
“This generation grew up in the last 20 and 30 years, most of them not keen on politics,” Ms. Wang said. “But they are being politicized by this event.”
Yaxue Cao, an editor at ChinaChange.org, the pro-democracy website that posted the comments, expressed her own opinions on the matter in her interview with Ms. Wang: “The Chinese feminists might have felt that they enjoyed a special freedom, but now they see the barbaric and brutal reality where every Chinese citizen, man or woman, is denied basic political rights,” she said.
The persecutions have occurred during a new global women’s rights campaign, Beijing+20,that is taking place around the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which the United Nations organized in 1995.
Several of the women have close ties to Yirenping, a nongovernment organization that battles discrimination against people with H.I.V., hepatitis and physical disabilities. Police officers have harassed the group in recent years, and late last month,they raided the Beijing Yirenping Center and seized files, laptops and desktop computers.
Their plight has inspired worldwide street protests and hashtags on Twitter — #FreeBeijing20Five and #FreeTheFive. On Sunday, a few dozen people held a protest in the Mong Kok neighborhood of Hong Kong. One slogan on a sign read: “Feminism is not a crime! Free the feminists! Free the five!”
An earlier version of the article misattributed a comment posted on ChinaChange.org as part of an interview with Wang Zheng, an associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Michigan. It was Yaxue Cao, an editor at the website who conducted the interview — not Professor Wang herself — who said, “The Chinese feminists might have felt that they enjoyed a special freedom, but now they see the barbaric and brutal reality where every Chinese citizen, man or woman, is denied basic political rights.”
By: Edward Wong for The New York Times, April 13 2015
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