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China court upholds death sentences in milk scandal
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08:37, March 27, 2009

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A court in north China's Hebei Province on Thursday upheld two death sentences, a suspended death verdict and other convictions in the country's tainted milk scandal.

The Hebei Higher People's Court upheld original verdicts for Geng Jinping for producing and selling poisonous food, and Zhang Yujun for endangering public safety. The two were sentenced to death on Jan. 22 by the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's Court.

Zhang was found guilty of producing 775 tonnes of melamine-laced protein powder and selling more than 600 tonnes of it to others. Geng was convicted of selling more than 900 tonnes of milk tainted with 434 kg of protein powder to the now-defunct Sanlu Group Co, which was at the heart of the scandal.

Death sentences need final approval from the Supreme People's Court in China before being carried out.

The higher court also reaffirmed a suspended death sentence for Gao Junjie. Gao was found guilty of producing and selling more than 200 tonnes of melamine-laced protein powder.

The appeal by Tian Wenhua, former chairwoman of Sanlu, was also rejected by the higher court. In a Jan. 22 verdict, she was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of producing and selling fake and substandard products. She was deprived of political rights and fined 24.68 million yuan (3.6 million U.S. dollars).

The court also upheld convictions for others involved in the tainted-dairy scandal, including Geng Jinzhu, Geng Jinping's sister, who was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of producing and selling poisoned food.

At least six infants died and almost 300,000 became ill after consuming dairy products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine. The chemical was added to milk to make it appear higher in protein content. It can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.

The contamination, which became public in early September last year, was initially found in Sanlu's baby formula products. Later products from dozens of other dairy companies were also found tainted by the chemical.

In an open letter published in December, Sanlu and 21 other dairy companies offered 200,000 yuan (29,000 U.S. dollars) to families whose children died, and 30,000 yuan for serious illnesses such as kidney stones and acute kidney failure. 2,000 yuan was offered for victims in less severe cases.

According to the China Dairy Industry Association, as of Jan. 22 about 90 percent of victims had been compensated. No updated figure was available.

On Wednesday, the Xinhua District Court in Sanlu-based Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital, accepted a compensation lawsuit by the family of a victim. It is the first such lawsuit accepted by a Chinese court. It was filed by an un-named parent from Beijing.

Lawyer Peng Jian said his plaintiff demanded a compensation of 31,000 yuan (4,538 U.S. dollars) from Sanlu Group.

Peng said he is also representing parents of five other children who are pursuing lawsuits - two from Beijing, one from central Henan Province, one from Inner Mongolia and one from Shanxi Province.

The children, aged one to four, all consumed melamine-tainted baby formula produced by Sanlu Group. The Henan victim - a one-year-old girl, died in June last year. Her parents are demanding 388,000 yuan in compensation. The parents of a two-year-old victim from Beijing asked for 437,840 yuan in compensation.

Their cases have not yet been accepted by courts.

More than 30 officials at various levels were punished after the scandal.

Last September, Li Changjiang, then director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), resigned. He was the highest-ranking official brought down by the scandal.

Eight senior government officials from AQSIQ and ministries of agriculture and health among others, had been fired or disciplined for supervisory failure in the scandal, the Communist Party of China (CPC) disciplinary body said last Friday.

The CPC disciplinary bodies of Hebei Province and Shijiazhuang City also recently announced punishments such as firing, demotion or warnings for a total of 24 local officials held responsible for the scandal.

Beijing-based Sanyuan Group, the only major dairy producer not involved in the scandal, bid 616.5 million yuan (90 million U.S. dollars) to buy Sanlu's core assets on March 4.

Another auction to dispose of Sanlu's assets, mainly its shares in four dairy plants as well as 169 of its protected trademarks and 12 patent rights, will be held on April 7 in Shijiazhuang.


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