BEIJING, June 12 (Reuters) - Chinese state prosecutors charged more than 20,000 people with environmental crimes last year and made more than 7,000 arrests, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Thursday.
With Beijing hoping to fight its "war against pollution" in the courts, officials from the Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP) said they would strike even harder this year against polluting firms and the local officials who protect them, Xinhua reported.
Long accused of turning a blind eye to environmental violations, China has promised to improve the way it enforces laws, and has also vowed to mete out tougher financial and criminal punishments for enterprises found guilty of violating state pollution rules.
Xinhua said Chinese state prosecutors had already set up a "rapid response mechanism" to deal with environmental crimes. In March and April alone, they investigated 228 cases and approved the arrest of 1,375 people.
It said 349 people were put under investigation or prosecuted in the first four months of 2014 on charges related to the dereliction of environmental duties, and that the number of cases had risen to 1,545 since the start of last year.
In many of the cases, government officials "accepted bribes, abused their power to approve polluting projects, and acted as a protective umbrella for polluters", Xinhua said, citing Li Zhongcheng, the deputy head of the SPP.
Beijing has been trying to beef up its monitoring, enforcement and punishment capacity, and earlier this year passed amendments to its 1989 Environmental Protection Law that gave inspectors greater legal backing and a broader range of weapons to deploy against polluters.
However, experts have claimed that China's courts and local governments still lack the capacity and manpower to handle the soaring number of environmental cases. (Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)