Beijing - China formally detained five women's rights activists on Thursday, apparently for planning to demonstrate against sexual harassment on public transport, paving the way for police to levy formal charges.
The detention of the women is the latest development in a case that has drawn international censure and underscores a widening campaign by President Xi Jinping to quash dissent among academics, journalists and social activists.
The women had made signs and stickers bearing slogans like "stop sexual harassment" and calling for police to arrest molesters, photographs circulated by rights groups showed.
The women, Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan and Wu Rongrong are being held at a detention centre in Beijing, although they are from three cities, lawyers for three of them said by phone.
"This is completely unreasonable," said Wang Qiushi, a lawyer for Wei. "None of them has violated the law."
They were planning demonstrations in Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou on the weekend of International Women's Day, 8 March. They were initially detained late on 6 March along with other rights activists who were subsequently released after being questioned.
No formal charges have been levied, but they were suspected of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", lawyers said, a charge authorities have used in the past to jail political dissidents.
The case has drawn criticism from international rights groups, the European Union and the United States.
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"We expect the Chinese authorities to release them without delay and to allow them immediate access to legal assistance and to their families," a spokesperson for EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said in a statement from Brussels.
The United States also called on China to release the five activists immediately.
A rights activist close to two of the women told Reuters police had warned many other campaigners against staging demonstrations on Women's Day, which coincided with an annual parliamentary session, a sensitive period for the leadership.
Yan Xin, Li's lawyer, said he had learned the details of the case after meeting his client on Thursday.
Police in the Haidian district of Beijing, where the women are being held, could not be reached for comment.
"It is chilling that women calling on police to investigate sexual harassment end up as targets," said William Nee of Amnesty International in a statement.
China has also clamped down on non-governmental organisations, including foreign groups. A draft law regulating foreign organisations would give police authority to restrict their finances and activities.