By Megha Rajagopalan
BEIJING (Reuters) - 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 censure from international rights groups and underscores a widening campaign by President Xi Jinping to quash any 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, who are from three cities, are being held at a detention center in Beijing, lawyers for three of them said by phone.
"This is completely unreasonable," said Wang Qiushi, a lawyer for one of them. "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, March 8. They were initially detained late on March 6 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.
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, another lawyer representing one of the women, 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 organizations, including foreign groups. A draft law regulating foreign organizations would give police authority to restrict their finances and activities.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)