Chinese police have released five feminist activists detained for more than a month in a case that prompted an international diplomatic outcry.
Lawyer Liang Xiaojun said the five were let go under a form of conditional release that still allows charges to be brought later.
Late on Monday night, all had either returned or were on their way to their homes in Beijing and elsewhere in China, including the southern metropolis of Guangzhou and the eastern resort city of Hangzhou.
Other lawyers could not be reached by phone, but posted messages on social media saying their clients had been freed.
The five – Wang Man, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting and Li Tingting –were detained last month as they prepared to distribute posters and stickers against domestic violence on International Women’s Day on 8 March. They were accused of creating a disturbance and, if convicted, could have been sentenced to up to three years in prison. Five others detained at the same time were released earlier.
The five women had in recent years been linked to several stunts in different cities aiming to highlight issues such as domestic violence and the poor provision of women’s toilets.
“Their release is not a victory – they are still on bail and still are suspects,” said Liang, who represents Wu. “Though released, the feminists’ activities are still being restricted and they are yet to gain their complete freedom.
“Detaining people and locking them up for 37 days has now become a common practice for the police to put pressure on civil society … a great threat to everyone who seeks social justice.”
Police originally told lawyers the activists were suspected of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a vague charge increasingly used by authorities under President Xi Jinping to detain and jail protesters for holding small-scale demonstrations.
They later changed the charge to illegal assembly, which carries the same maximum punishment of five years imprisonment.
China’s Communist party does not tolerate organised opposition, and often clamps down on small activist groups. But the detentions were seen by rights groups as unusually harsh given the small scale of the women’s stunts and the fact they had been praised in China’s state-run media.
Police interrogations of the women, several of whom suffer from chronic health problems such as asthma and an unspecified heart condition, have focused on a 2012 stunt named Occupy Men’s Rooms, their lawyers said.
Chinese criminal lawyers said that given the date of their detention, prosecutors had to formally charge them by the end of Monday or police would be obliged to release them.
Their detention prompted condemnation from rights groups as well as the US and the EU, which called for their release.
Amnesty International said China must “immediately and unconditionally release the five women if they are being detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association”.
The US secretary of state urged Beijing on Friday toFREE the women immediately. “Each and every one of us has the right to speak out against sexual harassment and the many other injustices that millions of women and girls suffer around the world each and every day,” said John Kerry.
Prospective presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted last week that the detentions were inexcusable and must end.
China rejected the US calls and said on Monday it had made representations to Washington on the issue. “We urge the United States to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs,” the foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said.
Ten of the activists’ parents and spouses at the weekend issued an eleventh-hour plea to authorities for their release. The activists were “young, kind-hearted, and full of a sense of responsibility to society”, the group wrote in a letter to Beijing prosecutors that was posted online on Saturday. They added: “Supporting gender equality and the interests of women is no crime!”