BEIJING (AP) — China on Wednesday rejected growing international calls for the release of five women's rights activists and accused critics of violating the country's judicial sovereignty by appealing for the women's freedom.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying defended China's legal system but said she had no specific details about the women's cases.
"No one has the right to ask China to release relevant persons, so we hope that relevant people will stop interfering in China's judicial sovereignty in such a manner," Hua told reporters at a regularly scheduled news briefing.
The five have been held in a Beijing detention center for almost three weeks, accused of creating a disturbance by planning to display posters raising awareness of sexual harassment to mark International Women's Day on March 8.
Beijing police on Wednesday said they had no information about the cases.
If convicted, Wei Tingting, Li Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan and Wu Rongrong could be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Five others detained at the same time have since been released.
Lawyers for the women say they are being held under harsh conditions, are subject to lengthy interrogations and have been denied access to legal counsel.
The detentions have fed fears that Chinese authorities are clamping down on public speech and dissent.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power strongly criticized the detentions in a statement Friday. Power said the charge of "creating a disturbance" was a pretext for stifling their attempts to pressing social problems.
"If China is committed to advancing the rights of women, then it should be working to address the issues raised by the women's rights activists, not silencing them," Power said.
The European Union has also called for their release, saying their right to demonstrate peacefully — a right not generally acknowledged in China — had been violated.
"We expect the Chinese authorities to release them without delay and to allow them immediate access to legal assistance and to their families," the EU statement said.
Activists on social media have also spearheaded a campaign demanding their release and at least one protest over the issue has been staged outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C.
China's restrictions on free speech and assembly and allegations of gender discrimination have also been highlighted by rights groups opposed to Beijing's bid to hold the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.