While rights groups have welcomed the release of five Chinese feminists on bail, calls are growing for all charges to be dropped against the women, who are still regarded as "suspects" and could be redetained by police at any time.
"Until all charges against them are formally dropped, the five remain criminal suspects and can still be indicted," the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) group said in a statement on Wednesday.
Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan were released "on bail" on Tuesday after being detained on suspected public order charges on March 6, as they planned a public transport awareness campaign to combat sexual harassment.
The five women, whose detention prompted an international outcry, won't be allowed to leave their hometowns without police approval, under the terms of their bail, HRW said.
Lu Jun, director of the Beijing-based anti-discrimination charity Yirenping, said the release of the five activists had been anything but unconditional.
"The police released them on this occasion because of the huge outcry from groups inside China and the international community," Lu said. "They were forced to release them."
"But the charges haven't been dropped, so in theory these five women are still suspected of a crime," he said.
"This is utterly ridiculous, and even the authorities themselves know that this is a miscarriage of justice," Lu said.
Beijing-based rights activist Ye Jinghuan, a close friend of Wu Rongrong, said the authorities had used release on bail as a way of deflecting international attention on the women.
"This use of so-called release on bail by the police is illegal," Ye said. "It's not the same thing as someone being released on bail by the state prosecutor, to await trial."
"This is an abuse of official power, which is expanding beyond any known horizons."
Defense lawyer Wang Qiushi agreed, saying the "bail" arrangements are just an interim move.
"We have no way of knowing the ultimate aim of the authorities here, but to judge from their previous methods, they often release people on so-called bail," Wang said.
"If they do this, they are responding to the demands of the outside world, but they are also achieving their aim of continuing surveillance [over these women]," Wang said, adding that there is provision for "bail" restrictions to last for up to a year.
HRW and Yirenping said there are also concerns over an ongoing crackdown on nongovernment campaign groups and charities in the wake of the women's detention ahead of International Women's Day.
China's foreign ministry said on Tuesday that Yirenping, which has close ties with the women, would be "punished" for suspected violations of the law.
Case not closed
According to HRW, the authorities have provided no credible information to substantiate this threat, and there are clear indications the case is far from closed.
"The detentions appear to be intended to intimidate independent civil society and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)," the group said, citing a forthcoming law clamping down on Chinese NGOs that seek overseas funding.
Meanwhile, Yirenping said in a statement translated by the ChinaChange.org website, that it wasn't the only group to be targeted in recent months.
"We have noticed that, starting last year, other anti-discrimination groups in China have run into a series of crackdowns that are without legal basis or warning," the statement said.
In July 2014, Zhengzhou Yirenping, an organization whose mission is eliminating discrimination against disability, was raided, according to the statement.
And in March 2015, Weizhiming, a Hangzhou group whose mission is eliminating gender discrimination, saw the same thing happen, it said.
"For Chinese officials to be so frightened of women simply raising awareness about sexual harassment prompts profound questions about the country's commitment to women's equality and the protection of human rights," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in the group's statement.
"That these activists were in detention at all marks a new low for human rights in China in the past decade," she said.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Tang Jitian said the threats against Yirenping are a form of official retribution for the organization's vocal support of the women during their detention.
"I think that this is the foreign ministry's response, and it has probably been contacted [to say this] by some very powerful departments," Tang said. "Otherwise, it wouldn't make statements like that."
"But it's hard to make the argument that it's against the law to call for the five women's release," he said.
Tang said the comments made it more likely that the authorities would pursue trumped-up charges such as "illegal business operations" against Yirenping.
"They could be the subject of a tax investigation," he said.
Li Sipan, who heads a Guangzhou-based women's news site, said the attack by the foreign ministry on Yirenping was "a joke."
"Yirenping has made a huge contribution, and carries out work to combat discrimination in many different areas," Li said.
Yirenping said in its statement that it would "take the accusation from the foreign ministry seriously" and seek legal advice.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.