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China detains five rights campaigners who planned Women's Day protest

Women were organizing demonstrations in several cities against sexual harassment on public buses

China is holding at least five women's rights activists in detention after they planned a demonstration ahead of International Women's Day, which falls on Sunday, rights lawyers said.

Rights groups say China's government is taking an increasingly tough line against freedom of expression. The detentions have also coincided with China's annual parliamentary session.

Attorneys for two of the detained activists told Reuters the five women, who are from three cities, were taken into custody by police on March 6. They had been organizing demonstrations in several cities over the weekend against sexual harassment on public buses.

One of the women detained, Li Tingting, known by her pseudonym Li Maizi, is best known for organizing a campaign for gender-neutral toilets. Another activist, Zheng Churan, was detained in the southern city of Guangzhou. Both are in their early 20s.

Three other campaigners were detained in the eastern coastal city of Hangzhou and in Beijing.

"Police have sought out many other feminist organizers throughout the country as well, and many demonstrations have been forcibly canceled," an activist, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions from the police, told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper.

Calls to public security authorities in Beijing went unanswered. A police official in Guangzhou said authorities were preparing a legal notice about Zheng's case for her family, and could not release information about her situation publicly.

The lawyers said charges against the women may be brought on Monday. Police have not said why they were detained.

"They have not given information on why she was detained, but my guess is that it has something to do with maintaining social stability on International Women's Day," Yan Xin, Li's lawyer, told the SCMP by phone. 

Another rights activist who is close to Li and Zheng told Reuters that many other campaigners had been given warnings by police ahead of the event.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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