BEIJING: Rights groups on Tuesday welcomed China’s unusual release of five feminist activists whose detention for more than a month triggered an international diplomatic outcry, saying the move showed Beijing sometimes responds to outside pressure.
The five, all aged 32 or younger, were taken into custody shortly before International Women’s Day last month as they were preparing to hand out leaflets about sexual harassment on public transport.
The European Union, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor Hillary Clinton had all issued calls for their freedom, while Beijing said it was an internal issue.
All five were released on Monday, which Chinese criminal lawyers said was the deadline for prosecutors to formally charge them.
China’s ruling Communist Party does not tolerate organized opposition, and often clamps down on small activist groups.
But the detentions were seen by rights groups as unusually harsh given the small scale of the women’s stunts and the fact that they had been praised in China’s state-run media.
China’s justice system is tightly controlled by the Communist Party, and when police seek charges against activists, prosecution and a guilty verdict normally follow.
The sparing of the five women suggests that China bowed to the “unprecedented global response” to their case, said Maya Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to co-host a women’s summit at the UN in September, and rights groups called for a boycott of the event unless the five activists were released — a potential embarrassment for Beijing, which is seeking to furnish an image as a “responsible stakeholder” on the global stage.
“It seemed like the police might not have anticipated that the timing of the arrest would have elicited such a strong response,” Wang said.
China’s crackdown on civil society under Xi had created a “dangerous acceptance” that activists will be harshly punished whatever the international response, she said, but the women’s case showed “that better treatment or even release is possible”.
“The problem is that we haven’t had enough of that in the past years,” she said.
The five women had been linked to several stunts in different Chinese cities aimed at highlighting issues such as domestic violence and the poor provision of women’s toilets.
Police originally told lawyers the activists were suspected of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a vague charge increasingly used by authorities under President Xi Jinping to detain and jail protesters for holding small-scale demonstrations.
They later changed the accusation to “illegal assembly”, which carries the same maximum punishment of five years imprisonment.
Liang Xiaojun, one of their attorneys, said: “In the eyes of the police, they are still suspects… they will need to regularly update authorities on their whereabouts.”
Several of the women have been involved with the Chinese campaign group Yirenping, which advocates on behalf of ending discrimination against women, the disabled, people with HIV/AIDS and others.
The group has come under increasing pressure over the past year, and its office was raided by about 20 police officers last month after it called for the release of the five women.
Several of its members have since gone into hiding, and activists have expressed concern that it will come under further pressure if a law clamping down on foreign-funded NGOs is passed later this year, as expected.
In a statement, Yirenping co-founder Lu Jun called the women’s detention “a glaring injustice” and said the group was “impressed by advocacy for their release from inside China and outside China”.
“What they’ve done has actually furthered legal protection of women’s rights and strengthened the rule of law in China,” Lu said.
William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said their release was an “encouraging breakthrough”, but added: “The authorities must now follow through and drop all charges and restrictions against the women.
“Women’s rights campaigners should be free to advance human rights without fear of intimidation or the threat of detention,” he said. “Yet the reality today is that rights activists are systematically monitored, harassed and suppressed.”