Rights groups welcome release of Chinese women activists

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Women activist Wei Tingting, 26, poses for a photograph with letters and a paper which read "push ahead legal advocacy, request information disclosure, domestic violence should be punished by law!" in this undated file handout picture taken in an unknown location in China, provided by a women's rights group on 8 April 2015Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
One of the activists, Wei Tingting, is seen here in an undated photo

Rights groups have welcomed China's release of five activists who were held for more than a month, saying it was driven by an international outcry.

The women, who had planned protests against sexual harassment, were detained shortly before International Women's Day on 8 March.

The US, UK and European Union had all called for their release.

The five have not been charged but their bail conditions mean charges could be brought at a later date.

Their lawyer, Liang Xiaojun, said they would need to regularly update the authorities on their whereabouts.

Human Rights Watch's Maya Wang said on Twitter that their release "shows international pressure works on China, when it is strong enough", and that the authorities should "cease harassment".

Amnesty International's William Nee said in a statement that the release was "an encouraging breakthrough", but that "the authorities must now follow through and drop all charges and restrictions against the women".

Lu Jun, the co-founder of Chinese campaign group Yirenping - which some of the women were involved with - said their detention was "a glaring injustice", but that advocacy for the release has "actually furthered legal protection of women's rights and strengthened the rule of law in China".

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The women are (L to R): Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan, and Wu Rongrong

Analysis, Celia Hatton, Beijing

Chinese authorities waited until the last possible moment to release the so-called Beijing Five from detention. Just hours before they were legally mandated to press ahead with a formal case, or release the women, prosecutors elected not to move forward with the recommended charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble".

The women, now free on bail, will remain under police surveillance. The activists are part of China's Women's Rights Action Group, a loose network of volunteers who organise events promoting gender equality.

Many see the women's high-profile arrests as a red light warning to civil rights groups across China to scale down their activities.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Zheng Churan, seen in this undated photo with a sign protesting the availability of jobs for female graduates

This year's International Women's Day coincided with China's annual parliamentary session, which usually has tight security and is often preceded by the detention of activists.

The women had planned activities including a march in a Beijing park where participants would wear stickers advocating safe sex, and gatherings in Beijing and Guangzhou calling for awareness of sexual harassment on buses.

China said on Monday it had lodged a formal complaint to the US over a statement by Secretary of State John Kerry at the weekend in which he called for their unconditional release.