Culprits in China’s contaminated milk scandal get death penalty

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 23rd January 2009

Two men accused of contaminating China’s milk supply have been sentenced to death by a Chinese court, while the former Chairwoman of Sanlu – the company at the centre of the scandal – will spend the rest of her life behind bars.

The criminal contamination of milk with the chemical melamine was discovered in September last year, sparking a spate of recalls around the world. In the aftermath it was discovered that around 294,000 infants had fallen ill as a result of consuming contaminated dairy products, while six babies were found to have died.

Zhang Yujun, who produced 770 tonnes of melamine-laced milk powder and sold more than 600 tonnes to others, and Geng Jinping, who sold more than 900 tonnes of milk tainted by 434 kg of protein powder to Sanlu, both face execution.

Zhang was convicted of endangering public safety, while Geng was convicted of manufacturing and selling toxic food, China’s news agency Xinhua reported.

One man, Gao Junjie, got a suspended death sentence for endangering public safety, meaning that he will spend the rest of his life in jail assuming good behaviour. Melamine-laced powder dealers Zhang Yanzhang and Xue Jianzhong were jailed for life under the crime of endangering public safety and Tian Wenhua, former Chairwoman of Sanlu, also faces a life imprisonment term. The remaining 15 defendants were sentenced 2-15 years in prison, these included three former executives of Sanlu, a company which continued to sell tainted milk products for over five weeks after first discovering a contamination. Tian was also fined 24.7 million Yuan (A$5.5m), ith Sanlu, which filed for bankruptcy last month, required to pay a fine of A$11 million.

Journalists and many relatives of victims of the contamination waited outside the court to hear the punishment, with families of the victims seemingly relieved by the sentences. “I feel sorry for the families of the defendants who were sentenced to death or life in prison,”  Zhao Lianhai, a father from Beijing, told Xinhua. “But the people who broke the law and harmed children must be dealt with strictly.”

Zheng Shuzhen, a grandmother from the central Henan Province, told Xinhua she was still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy of seeing her grand-daughter die from drinking milk from what was once a highly regarded brand. “Sanlu was a well-known brand and it was affordable. How could I have imagined that my grand-daughter would die after drinking Sanlu milk powder?” Zheng said in tears.

It is not known whether any of the 21 plan to appeal.

Another 39 people have been arrested in relation to the scandal, with their trials likely to be heard in coming months.