A court sentenced two men to death yesterday 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 left a staggering 296,000 or so sick last year in the largest food-safety scandal in China's recent history.
A court in Shijiazhuang, a city in Hebei province that is 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 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 timed to answer demands for justice over product safety issues. The now-bankrupt Sanlu Group is believed to have known about the milk contamination for months before it became public last September, after the Summer Olympic Games, but did 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 were given terms of between five and 15 years, the state Xinhua news agency said.
Sanlu is partly owned by the New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra.
Tougher prison terms were handed down to two milk brokers convicted of spiking watered-down milk with melamine, an industrial chemical, to artificially increase the readings measuring its protein content. Melamine is often used in plastics and to make fertilizer.
Zhang Yujun, a dairy farmer convicted of selling more than 600 tons of a "protein powder" containing melamine over a yearlong period, was the first to get a death sentence.
Soon afterward, the court gave the death penalty to Geng Jinping, a broker who sold milk tainted with the "protein powder" directly to dairies, Xinhua said.
More than 210 families of children sickened by the tainted milk filed a lawsuit last week before the Supreme People's Court, China's highest tribunal, against milk producers in a rare product liability case. The families had rejected a government-backed compensation plan from the milk industry, saying it did not spell out details of future medical care for their sick infants.
Some 300 infants remain hospitalized after drinking tainted formula.
The effect of the milk scandal ricocheted around the world. After Chinese-made products such as cookies and chocolates tested positive for melamine on several continents, 30 nations banned or restricted products from China containing dairy ingredients.
Close ties between milk producers and municipal and provincial governments where they are 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 did not 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, a mother of an infant who died earlier this month, said in a telephone interview from her native Shandong province on China's eastern seaboard.