China hands out death sentences over tainted milk


The chairwoman of the dairy at the centre of China's melamine-tainted milk scandal was sentenced to life in prison today for producing and selling fake or substandard products. Two other defendants in the trial were given death sentences.

Tian Wenhua, former chairwoman and general manager of of Sanlu Group, was sentenced at the Intermediate People's Court in Shijiazhuang, capital of northern Hebei Province.

Three other former Sanlu executives were given jail terms of between five years and 15 years, Xinhua news agency said.

At least six babies died from kidney stones after drinking melamine-contaminated formula in China and nearly 300,000 fell ill. Several companies were implicated in the scandal.

Police detained two parents to stop them attending the trial of the dairy executives, one father and fellow activists said yesterday.

Police today guarded the courthouse at Shijiazhuang, a gritty industrial city south of Beijing, nudging people away but avoiding confrontation. The session to announce the verdicts and sentences was closed to the public but a court official gave details to reporters outside.

Sanlu had failed to report cases of Chinese children developing kidney stones and other complications from drinking their milk months before news of the problem broke in September, making former general manager Tian Wenhua a particular target for angry parents.

Tian had pleaded guilty to charges of producing and selling fake or substandard products, which state media said did not carry a death sentence. Besides the life sentence, she was fined 24.5 million yuan ($3.6 million).

One of the men sentenced to death was Zhang Yujun. Zhang had made and sold over 600 tonnes of powder which contained melamine between October 2007 and August 2008, worth around 6.8 million yuan ($994,700), the official China Dailyquoted prosecutors saying earlier this month.

The powder was bought by middlemen who added it to pooled, watered-down milk from farmers that was then sold on to Sanlu. The powder, used in making plastics, is added to cheat nutrition tests. One of these middlemen was also given the death sentence.

The court had announced it would sentence 21 defendants implicated in the scandal today. However, it said shortly before the court opened that nine of them would be sentenced at other courts.

The closely watched trial ended just before the most important holiday in China, the Lunar New Year. Traditionally a time for families to reunite, Beijing may have hoped the sentences would deflect public outrage about the deadly impact of the tainted milk during the festive period.

Claims of official concealment and indifference have turned the milk powder case into a volatile political issue for the ruling Communist Party, which is wary of protest.