China has unexpectedly released five women activists on bail, two lawyers said on Monday, after a vocal campaign against their detention by Chinese and international rights campaigners.
The women were taken into custody on the weekend of March 8, International Women's Day and detained on suspicion of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," what Human Rights in China, a Chinese NGO, described as "a charge regularly used to silence civil society voices."
The women had planned to demonstrate against sexual harassment on public transportation when they were arrested.
Their case subsequently outraged a large swath of Chinese society, including dozens of students and workers, who signed petitions calling for their release.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry also called for their release, prompting China's foreign ministry to lodge a formal protest with Washington. The European Union also expressed concern about the case.
The women — Wei Tingting, 26, Wang Man, 32, Zheng Churan, 25, Li Tingting, 25, and Wu Rongrong, 30 — have been released on bail, Liang Xiaojun and Wang Qiushi, two lawyers involved in the case, told Reuters, citing accounts from family members.
Police did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.
President Xi Jinping's administration has detained hundreds of activists in the past two years, in what some rights groups say is the worst clampdown on dissent in the country in two decades.
"I'm not surprised at all because they've never committed any crimes," said Liang. "They've taken people into custody without any evidence of wrongdoing, so they have to release them."
Liang said the women were still considered suspects, adding that "their freedoms will be restricted, so it's not something that we should be happy about."
Wang, one of the released women, told Feng Yuan, a veteran women rights activist, that she was heading to the northern city of Tianjin, where her parents live. "She said her mental state is quite good, and she thanks everyone and her lawyers for their concern," Feng said.
Liang said he believed the international calls in support of their women played a part in their release.
China's Foreign Ministry has repeatedly decried what it says are unwarranted attempts by foreigners to interfere in the country's internal affairs, adding the case will be handled in accordance with the law.
The detained women participated in a 2012 campaign to press for more public toilets for women and a 2013-2014 campaign against domestic violence.
Al Jazeera and Reuters