01/08/2007, 00.00
CHINA
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For the first time court backs farmers’ case against police

In Zhejiang court sets landmark case against the police for failing to uphold farmers’ rights against polluting factories. Despite praise in legal circles for the decision, farmers still wonder who will pay for damages.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – For years, farmers in Wenzhou (Zhejiang) had in vain called on police to intervene against companies polluting their land. Now a Chinese court has order the police to look into the complaints.

The Shangchen District Court in Hangzhou last Thursday issued an order to Zhejiang police authorities to look into why the Wenzhou Public Security Bureau ignored the farmers' complaints that their ponds were ruined by pollution from nearby factories.

Between 2003 and 2004 more than 367 hectares of fish ponds in Wenzhou were polluted by 2,000 factories, causing losses of 170 million yuan.

In April of last year, the leaseholder of the land ordered the destruction of the fish ponds due to the severe pollution. The farmers asked Wenzhou police to look into the matter, but were again ignored.

Farmers then turned to the Zhejiang Public Security Bureau, and the latest lawsuit was initiated in October.

One farmer, who declined to be named, told the South China Morning Post that he and his fellow farmers hoped to get compensation as soon as possible after winning their case.

“We sued the officials because they did not do what they should have,” he said, “but the lawsuits did not affect them. They are not afraid of being sued and their tactic is to procrastinate.”

After complaints to the Zhejiang Environmental Protection Bureau were ignored, the farmers asked the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) to order Zhejiang to take action, but were turned away. SEPA ordered Zhejiang's environmental authorities to look into the matter only after the farmers successfully sued the environmental watchdog in June.

In China about 90 per cent of all rivers and lakes are polluted. Some 300 million farmers (34 per cent of the rural population) have no access to clean water. More than 190 million have to rely on water whose pollution levels far exceed minimum legal standards.

 Environmental degradation is one of the main causes of the 87,000 recorded cases of social protest in 2005 involving street clashes with the police. Such protest actions often follow failure to get redress from the authorities (police, government, courts).

Yuan Yulai, the attorney representing farmers in Wenzhou, said the fact that a local court could rule against provincial police was a sign of progress.

Yang Jianshun, a law professor at Renmin University, said this latest case was an encouraging sign of citizens' understanding of their rights.

“Previously,” he noted, “people were fearful, unwilling and unable to sue administrations, but now, awareness of how to protect themselves is growing.” (PB)

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