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In China, two men sentenced to death in milk scandal

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post / January 23, 2009
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BEIJING - A court yesterday sentenced two men to death for their roles in a deadly contaminated-milk scandal that embarrassed the Chinese government and prompted hundreds of families to sue for compensation. The woman in charge of the dairy company at the heart of the crisis was sentenced to life in prison.

The punishments were the first meted out in the scandal, which broke in September. At least six children died and 300,000 were sickened by infant formula tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, and more than two dozen countries, including the United States, recalled or banned food containing Chinese milk products.

The Intermediate People's Court in Shijiazhuang, where the dairy company is based, announced two other life terms and a suspended death sentence that is expected to be commuted to life imprisonment. Six defendants were sentenced to terms ranging from five to 15 years in jail. The court session was closed to the public and conducted under heavy security.

Tian Wenhua, 66, the chairwoman of the now bankrupt Sanlu Group, was the highest-ranking executive charged in the scandal. She pleaded guilty to charges of producing and selling fake goods and was fined $3.6 million. At her trial in December, she admitted knowing about the contamination for months before alerting officials.

The death sentences were given to Zhang Yujun, 40, for harming public security by operating an underground melamine workshop, and Geng Jinping, who ran a milk collection center and was convicted of producing and selling poisoned food.

Melamine, normally used to make fertilizers and plastics, was added to milk to raise its protein level in tests. Although harmless to adults, melamine can cause kidney stones in young children and animals. Investigations found that the trade in the illegal toxin was an open secret, with dairy farmers, milk collection centers and dairy companies often involved in efforts to disguise milk of poor quality as protein-rich.

Families of some victims said Tian had been made a scapegoat and was not as culpable as those who laced milk products with melamine.

Others said she should have been sentenced to death but also accused the government of being more concerned about prosecutions than their still-recovering children.

"The government gave us only $300, and my son is still living with a kidney stone," said Hu Shuixia, 38, from a village in Henan province. "Some people say that the government will never mention the Sanlu case again after sentencing these suspects to death. Rather than sentencing the criminals, the government should take care of our children."

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