April 15, 2015 / 1:58 AM / 3 years ago

China accuses prominent NGO of 'breaking the law'

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s foreign ministry threatened on Tuesday to punish a prominent non-governmental organisation which lobbied for the release of five freed women activists, saying the group must be held accountable for “breaking the law”.

Portraits of Li Tingting (top L), Wei Tingting (top R), (bottom, L-R) Wang Man, Wu Rongrong and Zheng Churan are pictured during a protest calling for their release in Hong Kong April 11, 2015. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

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 organisation they are affiliated with, Beijing Yirenping Center, because this organisation 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.

In a statement to reporters late on Tuesday, Lu said the NGO would hire a lawyer to respond to the allegations and the March raid on the office.

Lu said various police departments have monitored Yirenping closely since its founding in 2006.

“We have reason to believe that if Yirenping really engaged in ‘illegal’ behaviour, the police would have brought it up long ago, and not the foreign ministry today,” Lu said.

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 and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Michael Perry

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