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(New York) – The Chinese government should impartially investigate apparent excessive use of force by police against environmental protests in Maoming, Guangdong province, Human Rights Watch said today. A police crackdown against hundreds of Maoming residents demonstrating against a new petrochemical plant on March 30 and 31, 2014, resulted in dozens of casualties.

The Maoming residents were protesting the city’s plan to construct a plant that would manufacture paraxylene (PX), a toxic chemical. Photographs posted on social media showed several people lying in pools of blood, apparently unconscious. Others showed police officers in anti-riot gear kicking unarmed protesters and beating them on the head with batons. The protests continued into the evening of March 31.

“Accounts and photographs suggest that police may have used disproportionate force against demonstrators in Maoming,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Authorities should move swiftly to investigate these claims, and hold those responsible to account."

In a statement released on March 31, the Maoming government characterized the environmental protest as “a serious offense, which seriously affected social order.” It said the protesters had not applied for permission to protest as required by the 1989 Law on Assembly, Procession, and Demonstration (the Assembly Law). It also said that protesters throwing rocks and water bottles at government buildings had provoked police action, and that there had been no deaths. Photos and videos circulated by state media and posted on social media showed damaged public facilities, including overturned vehicles.

The government appears to be censoring news and information on the Maoming protests. Photos and posts have been removed from social media. The mainland media have been silent on the issue except for short statements and videos released by the authorities.

On April 1, hundreds of protesters demonstrated in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, in opposition to the proposed chemical plant. They also called on authorities to provide information on the alleged injuries reported in unconfirmed social media postings in the Maoming protests. A number of Guangzhou protesters were taken into police custody, media reports said. Police in Guangzhou and elsewhere should use only necessary and proportionate force in the case of genuine threats to public order.

National and local authorities should respect protesters’ rights to the freedoms of expression and assembly. Although the Chinese Constitution guarantees the right to assembly, the Assembly Law and its implementing regulations outline such restrictive requirements that the right is effectively denied. People who seek permission are usually turned down and suffer retaliation.

The authorities should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which provide that all security forces shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, the authorities must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Law enforcement officials should not use firearms against people “except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.”

Disproportionate use of force by Chinese security forces against protesters, including deliberate brutality and the use of live ammunition, has previously been documented by Human Rights Watch in Tibet and Xinjiang.

According to official statistics, hundreds of environmental protests take place in China each year. In previous years, similar expansions of PX petrochemical plants were halted or delayed following large-scale, peaceful demonstrations, notably in Dalian in 2011 and Xiamen in 2006.

In Maoming, the Chinese government should not engage in the kind of politically motivated crackdown that often follows protest incidents. These typically include arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, extensive news and information censorship, bans on journalists and media, and conflation between peaceful and violent protesters. Such responses have been common following large-scale or high-profile demonstrations, such as in the wake of protests in Wukan village in 2011 and the demonstrations against the censorship of Southern Weekly in 2013.

“Premier Li Keqiang has pledged to launch a ‘war on pollution’,” Richardson said, “Yet when citizens demonstrate their concerns for the environment they appear to be in harm’s way.”

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