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China to free three women activists on bail, fate of others unknown: lawyers

BEIJING: Chinese authorities have unexpectedly decided to release three women activists, two lawyers said on Monday, after an unprecedented vocal campaign against their detention by the West and China’s rights community.

Wei Tingting, 26, Wang Man, 32, Zheng Churan, 25, will be released on bail, Liang Xiaojun and Wang Qiushi, two lawyers involved in the case, told Reuters, citing accounts from family members.

But the fates of two other women, Li Tingting, 25, and Wu Rongrong, 30, are at present unknown, the lawyers said.

Police did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.

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”. They had planned to demonstrate against sexual harassment on public transport.

Their detention has galvanised China’s rights community.

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 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 who have been released are still considered suspects, adding that “their freedoms will be restricted, so it’s not something that we should be happy about”.

Liang said he believed the international calls in support of their women played a part in their release.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday it had lodged a formal protest with Washington after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry called for the release of the activists.

Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ 2016 presidential front-runner, annoyed Beijing last week with similar calls to free the women. Britain and the European Union have also expressed concern about the case.

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 2013-14 campaign against domestic violence.

Their cases have outraged a wide swath of Chinese society. Dozens of students and workers have signed petitions and held slogans calling for their release.

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