Five young women have been detained by China since early March
They campaigned against sexual harassment
Their detention has attracted international criticism
Five young Chinese feminists, whose detention has provoked an international outcry, may face up to five years in prison over their campaign for gender equality.
The women were among detained on March 6 and March 7 in three Chinese cities – Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou – shortly before events they had planned for International Women’s Day on March 8.
Wang Qiushi, the lawyer for one of the women, Wei Tingting, said police had recommended on April 6 that prosecutors press charges of “assembling a crowd to disturb public order.”
Wang told CNN that prosecutors had to decide whether to pursue the charges within seven days of the submission – by Monday.
“We hope that the prosecutors will not approve a formal arrest warrant, following the laws and standing up to pressure,” he said.
“But nobody knows what to expect till Monday; we can do nothing but wait.”
The five were initially held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Wang said he didn’t know why the charge against the women changed.
“Neither should constitute a crime,” he said.
Campaign group Amnesty International said the new charge was less serious but still carried a maximum jail term of five years.
“The women were doing nothing wrong, nothing illegal. They were simply calling for an end to sexual harassment,” William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International told CNN.
“Everything they were doing was in line with China’s own laws and policies.”
Wang said that Wei had been subject to lengthy cross examinations during her detention but was well the last time they met on March 31. Two of the women are said to be in poor health.
He added that the charges relate both to the activities the women planned for International Women’s Day and earlier campaigns against domestic violence and for more public toilets for women.
The five – who are members of China’s Women’s Rights Action Group – had planned to hand out stickers printed with slogans saying “stop sexual harassment, let us stay safe” and “go police, go arrest those who committed sexual harassment!” on women’s day.
Free the five
The detention of Wei, along with Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wang Man and Zheng Churan has drawn harsh criticism from the international community.
Protests have taken place in several cities, including Hong Kong, that urge Chinese officials to “free the five.” A social media campaign also uses the phrase as a hashtag.
On Monday, Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state, tweeted that the activists’ detention was “inexcusable.”
Her comment drew a rebuke from Chinese authorities, who said public figures should respect China’s sovereignty and independence.
Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the activists were best known for their “performance art” style protests – occupying public toilets to highlight long lines at women’s restrooms, donning blood-spattered wedding gowns to protest domestic violence and shaving their heads to protest against barriers to higher education for women.
“These activists epitomize the spirit of the times. They are young, confident, ready to challenge established norms,” Wang said.
As China prepares to mark the anniversary of landmark UN Fourth World Conference on Women in September, it will be hard for authorities to justify detaining the activists, she added.