BEIJING (Reuters) - China's foreign ministry threatened on Tuesday to punish a prominent non-governmental organization which lobbied for the release of five freed women activists, saying the group must be held accountable for "breaking the law".
Yirenping, an anti-discrimination NGO, has defended the rights of people with HIV, Hepatitis B, women and people with disabilities.
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.
In late March, Chinese police officers raided Yirenping's office and seized laptops and details of contacts, its co-founder, Lu Jun, told Reuters.
The NGO has also lobbied for five women activists whose detentions sparked an outcry by the West and Chinese rights campaigners. The women, who have campaigned against domestic violence and discrimination, were released on bail on Monday.
"For the organization they are affiliated with, Beijing Yirenping Center, because this organization is suspected of violating the law, it will face punishment," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily news briefing.
It is unclear what punishment Yirenping will face.
Lu, who is in New York, did not respond to a request for comment. Calls to its Beijing office went unanswered.
For more than a month, Lu has campaigned for the release of the women, sending journalists information and setting up a Facebook group called "Free Chinese Feminists".
Wang Zheng, a scholar who researches Chinese women and gender at the University of Michigan, said she believed Chinese authorities targeted the women activists because "they want to smash Yirenping".
"The authorities probably don't want to make too big a splash by arresting the head of Yirenping, so they detained these young women to send the message," Wang was quoted as saying in an interview published last weekend on China Change, a website on civil society in China.
"They succeeded in terrifying Yirenping. Once these young feminists were detained, everyone working at Yirenping knew this was about Yirenping," she said.
(Reporting by Megha Rajagopalan, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)