CHINA - The top court and procuratorate jointly issued an interpretation on the conviction and sentencing standards of criminal cases involving environmental pollution on Tuesday.
Experts said the interpretation will provide "legal weapons" to combat such crimes.
"At present, environmental pollution is very serious across the country, which seriously harms the ecological environment, and poses a great threat to people's health and property safety," Hu Yunteng, director of the research department under the Supreme People's Court, said during a news conference on Tuesday.
Figures released by the Ministry of Public Security show that police have uncovered a number of major criminal cases involving environmental pollution since January, and arrested 118 suspects.
Among those, 24 have been charged with polluting the environment or illegally disposing of or importing solid waste by the prosecuting departments, according to the ministry.
"With more precise criteria for convictions and sentencing, including those for crimes of causing serious pollution and serious consequences, the judicial interpretation will ensure law enforcement officers apply the laws accurately," said Wu Ming'an, a law professor from China University of Political Science and Law.
He said the interpretation will be effective in solving the three traditional problems facing judicial officers - evidence collection, appraisal and crime identification.
"The judicial explanation, which lowered the threshold for crime identification and imposed harsher punishment on polluters, will be effective to prevent environmental damage in the future," said Li Lin, a lawyer from Beijing Lawyers' Society.
But she still doubted whether it will be fully implemented by the judicial organs.
The interpretation lists 14 types of activities that will be considered crimes of seriously polluting the environment and resources.
For instance, discharging or dumping radioactive waste or waste containing infectious pathogens or toxic substances into sources of drinking water and nature reserves will be considered crimes of seriously polluting the environment.
Activities leading to pollution that force more than 5,000 people to be evacuated, or poisons more than 3,000 people or causes one person to die are also considered serious environmental crimes. Severe punishment will also be meted out to offenders who illegally import solid waste or neglect their duty for environment supervision, and cause huge economic losses, harm people's health or result in injuries or death.
For example, people who cause the suspension of water supply for more than 12 hours for an area of a county or above, cause private or public economic losses of more than 300,000 yuan ($49,000), or poison more than 30 people, will face harsher punishment.
Those who obstruct environmental supervision or investigations for environmental accidents; those who dismantle facilities intended for environmental pollution prevention, or cause them not to operate normally; those who discharge pollutants near hospitals, schools and large residential areas, will be considered serious offenders.
According to the Criminal Law, those convicted of polluting the environment, illegally disposing of or importing solid waste will face jail terms of up to three years, with fines.
But if the circumstances are serious or they cause particularly serious consequences, they will face a maximum prison term of seven years.
Han Yaoyuan, deputy director of the research department under the Supreme People's Procuratorate, said they will pay attention to investigating duty-related crimes found behind the environmental pollution crimes.
"Prosecuting departments from each level will investigate the cases involving turning a blind eye toward pollution or making fines instead of making criminal punishment," he said.