Thu 22 Jan, 2009 12:19 pm
2 Chinese men get death over tainted milk
By Tim Johnson | McClatchy Newspapers
BEIJING " A court Thursday sentenced two men to death for their role in a tainted-milk scandal but gave the former chairwoman of China’s largest dairy a lesser sentence of life imprisonment, enraging parents of infants who died. Milk adulterated with an industrial chemical killed six infants and sickened 296,000 or so last year in the largest food-safety scandal in China’s recent history. A court in Shijiazhuang, a city in Hebei province that's headquarters for the Sanlu Group, one of the 22 dairies across the nation found to have peddled tainted-milk products, issued the sentences in a closed-door hearing. Police barred the parents of sick and deceased infants from approaching the courthouse. The court acted just days before China’s most important annual holiday, the Lunar New Year, and the death sentences appeared to be timed to answer demands for justice over product-safety issues. The now-bankrupt Sanlu Group is thought to have known about the milk contamination for months before it became public last September after the Summer Olympic Games, but to have done nothing about it.
The people’s intermediate court gave Tian Wenhua, 66, the former chairwoman of Sanlu, a sentence of life in prison. Three other former executives of Sanlu received terms of five to 15 years, said Xinhua, the state news agency. Sanlu is partly owned by the New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra. Tougher prison terms were handed down to two milk brokers who were convicted of spiking watered-down milk with melamine, an industrial chemical, to artificially increase the readings of its protein content. Melamine often is used in plastics and to make fertilizer.
Zhang Yujun, a dairy farmer who was convicted of selling more than 600 tons of a “protein powder” containing melamine over a year-long period, was the first to get a death sentence. Shortly afterward, the court gave the death penalty to Geng Jinping, a broker who sold milk tainted with the “protein powder” to dairies, Xinhua said. More than 210 families of children who were sickened by the tainted milk sued milk producers last week in the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest tribunal, in a rare product-liability case. The families had rejected a government-backed compensation plan from the milk industry, saying that it didn't spell out the details of future medical care for their sick infants. Some 300 infants remain hospitalized after drinking tainted formula. The impact of the milk scandal ricocheted around the world. After Chinese-made products such as cookies and chocolates tested positive for melamine on several continents, some 30 nations banned or restricted products from China that contained dairy ingredients. Close ties between milk producers and the municipal and provincial governments where they're based have led to suggestions of political concealment of the scandal, stoking public anger and making it a volatile political issue.
So far, no government officials have been charged in the scandal. The death sentences didn't assuage some parents. “Even if these people were dismembered and cut into a thousand pieces, it would not compensate for the hurt we have suffered,” Wang Yuelan, the mother of an infant who died earlier this month, said in a telephone interview from her native Shandong province, on China’s eastern seaboard. Another parent, Xu Hao, said he was coerced into signing a government-backed agreement that gave him a one-time cash payment of 2,000 yuan (about $294) for his ailing infant daughter, Kaining, who drank Sanlu milk for 10 months and still suffers from kidney stones. “Those affected have no right to speak out, and only can passively accept" the situation, Xu said. “I signed the agreement, so I hope my daughter will not have any further health problems related to poisoned milk. If there are any, I only hope the company will resolve the problems with good conscience.” (McClatchy special correspondent Hua Li contributed to this article.)