China environmental crime arrests up more than 50 percent in 2018: ministry

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China arrested 15,095 people for environmental crimes in 2018, up 51.5 percent from a year earlier, the country’s top prosecuting body said on Thursday, as it worked to improve compliance among local governments and enterprises.

China has been trying to make better use of its police and judicial authorities to redress the damage done to its skies, soil and water by four decades of breakneck economic growth.

In 2018, authorities also prosecuted 42,195 people for a range of environmental offences such as illegal deforestation and land occupation, as well as unlawful mining and fishing activities, said Zhang Zhijie, a senior prosecutor with China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate.

The number of prosecutions was up 21 percent on the year, although they were still relatively small compared to the total number of environmental violations, which reached 130,000 in the first nine months of 2018 alone.

“We are punishing crimes, with the purpose not to impose simple criminal punishments on suspects and defendants, but to repair social relations, restore environmental damage and demonstrate a favorable course of development,” Zhang told reporters at a briefing.

President Xi Jinping vowed last year to use the full weight of the state to resolve longstanding environmental problems.

Beijing has encouraged courts and police departments to establish dedicated environmental divisions, and other regulatory bodies are also under pressure to play a bigger role in punishing polluters.

Environment minister Li Ganjie said at a meeting last month that fines of 15.28 billion yuan ($2.26 billion) were meted out for environmental offences over the course of last year, up 32 percent from 2017.

Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Tom Hogue