Two sentenced to death over milk scandal

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A Chinese court today sentenced two men to death for their role in a tainted milk scandal that killed at least six children, while the woman most widely blamed for the tragedy got life in jail.

Nearly 300,000 children fell ill last year after drinking milk intentionally laced with melamine, a toxic industrial compound that can give a fake positive on some nutrition tests.

The closely watched trial of middlemen and executives from the Sanlu Group, a now bankrupt firm that had failed to report cases of infants getting sick from drinking its products, wrapped up just before the most important holiday in China.

The Lunar New Year is traditionally a time for families to reunite and Beijing may have hoped the sentences would deflect public outrage about the deadly impact of the tainted milk during the festive period.

Affected parents had focused their anger on Sanlu's former general manager, Tian Wenhua, and were angry she was given a life sentence and would not face execution.

"She should have been shot," said Zheng Shuzhen, a 48-year-old who said her granddaughter died in June of kidney failure after drinking Sanlu milk formula but was not included in the list of victims.

"So many children died but they kept the official number down so that she could get life (in jail), not death," she added.

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).

Melamine is more commonly used in making plastics chairs, countertops, flame retardants and even concrete, and causes health problems included kidney stones when consumed by children.

Political volatility

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.

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

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

One of the men sentenced to death was Zhang Yujun, who had made and sold over 600 tonnes of "protein powder" laced with melamine between October 2007 and August 2008, the official China Daily quoted 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. One of these men was also given the death sentence.

A third man was handed down a suspended death sentence, which usually means life in prison on good behaviour.

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