SHIJIAZHUANG, China — A Chinese court condemned two men to death Thursday and handed a life term to a former dairy boss in the first sentences for those involved in the country's contaminated milk scandal.
The Intermediate People's Court in Shijiazhuang gave the 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, widely seen as a national disgrace that highlighted corporate and official shortcomings and corruption.
At her trial at the end of 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.
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The court also sentenced Zhang Yujun, 40, to death for running a workshop that was allegedly China's largest source of melamine, said spokesman Wang Wei. A second man, Geng Jinping, was also given the death penalty for producing and selling toxic food.
Zheng Shuzhen, from Henan province, said her 1-year-old granddaughter died in June after drinking Sanlu milk.
"I've run out of tears. ... That's why I came today. Even if (Tian) dies a hundred times over, it won't lessen our hate," Zheng said.
A total of 21 defendants were being sentenced Thursday in connection with the case.
Two men, including 24-year-old Zhang Yanzhang, were sentenced to life imprisonment for endangering public safety. Zhang Yanzhang was accused of working with Zhang Yujun.
Three other former Sanlu executives were given between five years and 15 years in prison.
The sentences were read out by Wang outside the court, where families of babies sickened in the scandal had anxiously gathered.
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.
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.
Zhao Lianhai, who has set up a Web site to help organize parents whose children were sickened, said about a dozen parents from across the country had hoped to attend the sentencing but only seven showed up.
Authorities detained at least two sets of parents of melamine victims as they attempted to travel to the courthouse, said Li Fangping, a Beijing lawyer who has worked with the parents since news of the poisonings emerged.
Dong Shiliang, from southern Yunnan province, was stopped from boarding a plane in Kunming on Wednesday while Liu Donglin was being held at a Beijing police station, he said.
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.
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.
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. A Chinese court has handed down a death penalty to a man convicted of endangering public safety in the first sentencing connected with a contaminated milk scandal that shocked the country.
The Intermediate People's Court in Shijiazhuang gave the death sentence to Zhang Yujun. He was convicted of running a workshop that was allegedly China's largest source of melamine, the substance responsible for the health crisis.
A court spokesman said a second man, Zhang Yanzhang, was given a life sentence, also for endangering public safety.
The court is expected to hand down a sentence later Thursday for Tian Wenhua, the general manager of the dairy company at the heart of the scandal.