China police shift focus of women activists' probe - lawyers

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Chinese police are focusing their investigation into five detained women activists on campaigns they were involved in over recent years, not their latest bid to highlight sexual harassment on public transport, lawyers said on Wednesday.

The five were taken into custody on the weekend of International Women's Day, March 8, and later detained on suspicion of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", their lawyers said, a charge that carries jail of up to five years.

The United States, Britain and the European Union have condemned the detentions, prompting China to call on other countries to respect its judicial sovereignty.

Supporters of the five - Li Tingting, 25, Wei Tingting, 26, Wang Man, 32, Zheng Churan, 25, and Wu Rongrong, 30 - initially assumed they were picked up because of their plans to demonstrate against sexual harassment on buses and trains.

But Wang Qiushi, the lawyer for Li Tingting, said the focus of the investigation was centred on a 2012 campaign to press for more public toilets for women and a 2013-14 campaign against domestic violence.

"The initial reason for taking them away was the anti-sexual harassment bus activity on March 7, but it looks like slapping them now with a criminal charge for that is obviously very difficult," Mr Wang said.

The 2012 "Occupy Men's Room" campaign led to four cities pledging to increase the ratio of toilet cubicles for women, the state-run China Daily reported.

The "Bloodstained Bride" campaign of 2013-2014 involved women posing in blood-splattered wedding gowns to draw attention to violence.

Lu Jun, co-founder of a group that campaigns against discrimination against women, said men identifying themselves as Beijing police had gone to various cities to look for women who participated in an "Occupy Men's Rooms" campaign.

Beijing police did not respond to a request for comment.

Yan Xin, a lawyer for Li Tingting, said Li told him police have submitted their cases to the prosecutor's office. Prosecutors will decide within days whether the women should be formally arrested or released.

Yan said his client has told him that most of the questioning has revolved around the 2012 and 2013 campaigns.

Liang Xiaojun, a lawyer for Wu Rongrong, said police took his client into custody on the grounds of the planned campaign against sexual harassment but "never really asked" questions about that plan.