Victims of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) who "deliberately" spread the disease could face life imprisonment or the death penalty, the Chinese authorities said yesterday.
The Supreme Court warning was issued as a doctor who allegedly broke quarantine and infected more than 100 people became the first person to be arrested for spreading the virus. Authorities in the northern city of Linhe were preparing to charge Dr Li Song with violating China's infectious disease law. He allegedly carried Sars there from Beijing, violating a quarantine and causing an outbreak that infected 102 people, including 23 medical staff.
Dr Li and his wife escaped from an isolation ward and were caught hours later wandering the streets, a local health official said. After his father died of Sars, Dr Li reportedly refused to allow removal of the body, attacked doctors and nurses and smashed hospital equipment.
He is the first person known to have been arrested for infecting others, although some have been detained for spreading rumours about the outbreak. A number of officials have been sacked for negligence, including the former health minister and the mayor of Beijing, who lost key party positions for their handling of the disease at its outset.
Dr Li's alleged crime carries a maximum penalty of up to three years in prison or a fine under the infectious disease law, but he could face much harsher punishment under the Supreme Court ruling that people who violate quarantines and spread the virus can be imprisoned for up to seven years. It said those who caused death or serious injury by "deliberately spreading" the virus could be sentenced to jail terms of 10 years to life or might be executed.
China – the world's most prolific executioner, putting to death more than 1,000 people a year – wields the death penalty as a deterrent for even non-violent offences, though it is not often imposed in those cases. The threat of harsh punishments during emergencies is common.
Liu Jian, China's deputy agriculture minister, said there was a serious risk of Sars rampaging through the countryside and "we need to rouse utmost attention and caution".
Another four deaths were announced from the flu-like disease in China yesterday, raising the death toll on the mainland to 271.
Rural areas so far account for only a small fraction of China's 5,100-plus Sars cases, the health and finance ministries said. But they called for increased efforts to shield villages, especially by keeping migrant workers from importing the virus from cities.
Yesterday the World Health Organisation added five more Chinese regions to the list of areas affected by the outbreak. Worst affected is the region of Hebei, near Beijing, where there have been 194 cases and eight deaths. Jilin, north of Beijing, has reported 30 cases.
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