World

Lawyers sue Chinese government over air pollution

BEIJING Toxic smog has found itself in the dock in China, as the authorities are taken to court over a problem that has choked entire regions.

At the helm are human rights lawyers, who despite increasing government hostility to their work on some of China's most sensitive cases, say popular feeling is behind them when it comes to off-the-charts pollution.

"Chinese people aren't too concerned about societal problems and things that aren't happening to them personally, but this issue is different: Everyone is a victim and is personally affected by breathing polluted air," lawyer Yu Wensheng told AFP.

He is among a group of six lawyers who began filing their suits last month after choking haze descended on China's north-east, affecting 460 million people.

The campaign comes amid growing public anger over China's bad air, which has fuelled protests and spurred emigration among the wealthy.

Mr Yu, who has defended civil rights lawyers targeted by the government, said the importance of the pollution suit "far exceeds" his previous human rights cases.

Even acquaintances opposed to Mr Yu's politics and police at a client's detention centre had expressed support, he said, noting it was "very unusual".

But there are concerns the authorities might be trying to quell discontent by suppressing information on air quality. The Meteorological Administration has ordered local weather bureaus to stop issuing smog alerts, which the authorities said was to improve coordination.

A document submitted by Mr Yu's associate to court accused the government of "severe dereliction of duty" in pollution management and sacrificing human health in pursuit of "toxic GDP growth" by turning a blind eye to the excessive emissions of local companies.

The lawyers have little hope of winning and are viewing the suits as "mostly symbolic", Mr Yu said. The document asked for the authorities to publish an apology online and in the local state-run newspaper and pay compensation of 65 yuan (S$13) for the price of a smog mask and 9,999 yuan for emotional damages. - AFP

ChinaEnvironmentcourt