SHIJIAZHUANG, China – A Chinese court condemned two men to death and handed a life term to a dairy boss Thursday for their roles in the country’s contaminated milk scandal, which ignited public anger and accusations of cover-ups.
The Intermediate People’s Court in Shijiazhuang gave a life sentence to Tian Wenhua, 66, the former general manager and chairwoman of Sanlu Group Co., the dairy at the center of the crisis. She was the highest-ranking official charged in the food safety scandal.
At her trial in December, Tian pleaded guilty to charges of producing and selling fake or substandard products after infant formula tainted with the chemical melamine was blamed in the deaths of at least six babies and the illnesses of nearly 300,000 others.
The court sentenced Zhang Yujun, 40, to death for running a workshop that was allegedly China’s largest source of melamine — the industrial chemical added to milk apparently to fool protein tests, said spokesman Wang Wei. Geng Jinping was also given the death penalty for producing and selling toxic food. A third man, Gao Junjie, was given a suspended death sentence, which is usually commuted to a life sentence.
Some of the relatives of the victims, who gathered outside the court in cold weather in northern China, said Tian got off lightly.
“My granddaughter died. She (Tian) should die too, she should be shot. She has brought such harm to the public, to children,” said Zheng Shuzhen, of Henan province, who said her 1-year-old granddaughter died in June after drinking Sanlu milk.
Among the 12 sentences announced, two other life terms were handed down, while others were given jail terms of five to 15 years.
A lawyer advising victims’ families said the death sentences and life terms were “cruel and heavy.”
“It was a problem of the system, but they were brought to court as scapegoats,” said Li Fangping. “No government officials were charged for failing to fulfill their inspection responsibility.”
The sentences — which were the first handed down in the scandal — and a recent announcement of a compensation plan for the victims appear to be part of a government bid to put an end to the crisis.
During her Dec. 31 trial, Tian admitted she had known of problems with her company’s products for months before informing authorities. The scandal was exposed in September.
Tian was also fined 20 million yuan ($2.92 million) while Sanlu, which has been declared bankrupt, was fined 50 million yuan ($7.3 million).
In a reflection of the trial’s sensitivity, dozens of policers officers guarded the courthouse and cordoned off the surrounding area with plastic barriers. Officers told the victims’ families to keep about 100 yards (meters) away.
Zhao said he and other parents plan to travel to Beijing on Friday to deliver a petition to the Ministry of Health. Zhao and the others say an official compensation plan was put together without their input and does not offer enough long-term help.
Sanlu, along with the other 21 dairy companies involved in the scandal, have proposed a 1.1 billion yuan ($160 million) compensation plan. More than 200 families have filed suit demanding higher compensation and long-term treatment for their babies.
Investigations showed that middlemen who sold milk to dairy companies were watering down raw milk, then mixing in nitrogen-rich melamine to fool quality tests for protein content. Such tests usually measure nitrogen.
Normally used to make plastics and fertilizer, melamine can cause kidney stones and kidney failure when ingested in large amounts. The discovery of melamine in dairy exports such as chocolate and yogurt triggered a slew of product recalls overseas.