The five young Chinese feminists dubbed the "Beijing Five," who have made international headlines since they were initially detained for "picking quarrels and provoking troubles," have now been released after spending more than a month in prison without charge.
Liang Xiaojun, a lawyer for 30-year-old Wu Rongrong — who was at first denied medication for her Hepatitis B, and experienced acute liver pain and was coughing up blood before being transferred to the prison's medical wing last month —tweeted a message his client sent to him shortly after her release Monday night.
"Thank you, free now!" Wu reportedly wrote. "The five feminist heroines have finally been released on bail, although the coming year they will be living and working with limited freedom. This case has left us a lot to discuss and think about. But for now, shower and good night!"
Wu and her fellow activists Li Tingting, 25, Wei Tingting, 26, Wang Man, 32, and Zheng Churan, 25, were released 37 days after they were arrested on March 8, the eve of International Women's Day, for reportedly planning to affix stickers to subway cars and busses calling for police to arrest gropers and other harassers.
The five still face modified charges of "gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places" and have been released on a "guarantee pending further investigation," a procedural step that will severely inhabit and restrict their movement, communications with each other and with fellow activists, as well as further subject them to interrogation for up to 12 months.
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, a non-governmental organization that has been in close contact with the women's lawyers throughout the ordeal, told VICE News last week that the charges brought against them vastly differ from the original allegations authorities used to detain the women.
Under the terms of their release, the women will not be allowed to leave their cities or counties of residence and be forced to report any changes in address and employment status. They have also been told to "not collude with other co-participants regarding confessions."
"Although they are no longer physically restrained in the detention center, they are still criminal suspects, which is key," Margaret K. Lewis, a China law expert and professor at Seton Hall Law School, told VICE News. "The police have a year now, pending further investigation, before they have to drop the case."
Lewis explained that the women still remain in a pre-arrest phase, where police have formally requested the procuratorate office to bring charges against them. Once they face formal prosecution, the women will almost certainly spend at least some time in prison, she added.
"The reality is, the conviction rate in criminal cases in China is about 99 percent," Lewis said. "if you are formally charged, you will be convicted."
Which is why human rights and social activists have been cautious in their praise of the government's decision to release the women.
William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International, called the move an "incomplete step" in a statement Monday.
"The authorities must now follow through and drop all charges and restrictions against the women," Nee said. "Women's rights campaigners should be free to advance human rights without fear of intimidation or the threat of detention… Yet the reality today is that rights activists are systematically monitored, harassed, and suppressed."
The five activists have long been on the radar of Chinese officials for their brand of grassroots feminism and street activism, which saw them parading in blood-stained wedding dresses in protest of domestic abuse and bursting into men's public restrooms to demand more women's toilet facilities.
Lewis also stresses the irony in the central party's reasons for detaining the activists, who were encouraging people to follow Chinese law — which explicitly states that sexual harassment is illegal.
"You see this tension a lot," she said. "On the one hand, Chinese authorities maintain that 'women hold up half the sky,' but on the other hand, they remain very cautious about social organizing, NGOs, and any activities that are seen as challenging to the government."
Despite the women's case drawing global attention and protests in recent weeks, China has upheld its right to administer its own justice and rule of law.
"It is part of this pattern of [the central government] trying to consolidate, expand, and deepen control over citizens," Hom said. "This has been especially true since President Xi Jinping came into power," which was in late 2012.
As to the police's assertions that the women attempted to gather "crowds to disrupt order in public places," Lewis said investigators will need to examine the women's storied histories of performance activism, as the activists were actually arrested prior to executing the purportedly "disruptive" actions surrounding domestic violence last month.
"[Disrupting order] is such a wonderfully vague term the police embrace whenever they want to charge someone without having much evidence," said Lewis. "They're not talking about future crimes here. It seems that they're looking backwards in time to prior activities. One big question now is how far in the past might the lawyers be willing to dig."
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields