Several prominent women's rights activists remain in custody in China one week after they were detained in the lead-up to International Women's Day.
A lawyer for the women says police claim that they are suspected of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” a common charge used to initiate legal action against Chinese dissidents.
Their detention may pave the way for criminal charges.
According to William Nee, China researcher with Amnesty International, the timing of the detentions may look very bad for Beijing officials.
“To be detaining five women who are trying to stop sexual harassment on the 20th anniversary is an absolute embarrassment, so hopefully the Chinese government will do the right thing and release them immediately.”
A total of 10 female activists were detained on March 6. They had been planning demonstrations on March 8, International Women's Day, when they also planned to affix stickers saying “Stop Sexual Harassment” to public transit vehicles. Sexual harassment on subways and buses has been a popularly debated topic over the last year in China.
Five of the women were later released, but Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan and Wu Rongrong remain in custody. Their formal detentions represent the final legal step before charges can be issued and the detainees can be brought to trial. Observers say that if the women are brought to trial it will be another sign of a widening crackdown on Chinese civil rights.
“If they are formally arrested, I would say the government is taking a much harder line towards civil society and women’s rights," said Nee. "But I would say it’s still too early to tell, and right now there is a window of time for people around the world to voice their support and voice their outrage.”
Nee says the fact that the women were detained in several eastern Chinese cities indicates a broadly coordinated effort by the Chinese government. Their arrests occurred during an annual meeting of China’s national parliament, when the government steps up police and security presence in the capital.
The detentions have drawn international criticism. Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted that the women’s arrests restrict individuals and NGOs "fighting for universal rights." The European Union has also called for their release.