A Chinese court on Thursday sentenced two men to death for their role in the production and sale of melamine-tainted milk that killed at least six children and made nearly 300,000 ill.
The former head of the dairy firm at the heart of the scandal, the now bankrupt Sanlu Group, got life in prison and a fine, which may anger some affected parents who had hoped she would face the ultimate punishment.
The closely watched trial of middlemen and executives from the Sanlu Group -- accused of peddling poisonous products or turning a blind eye to their sale -- wrapped up just before the most important holiday in China, the Lunar New Year.
Traditionally a time for families to reunite, Beijing may have hoped the sentences would deflect public outrage about the deadly impact of the tainted milk during the festive period.
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.
Sanlu had failed to report cases of Chinese children developing kidney stones and other complications from drinking their milk months before news of the problem broke in
September, making former general manager Tian Wenhua a particular target for angry parents.
”I think she should be shot. A death for a death,” said Zheng Shuzhen, a 48-year-old grandmother from central Henan province, who said her one-year-old granddaughter, Zhou Mengxian, died in June of kidney failure after drinking Sanlu milk formula but was not included in the list of victims.
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).
One of the men sentenced to death was Zhang Yujun. Zhang had made and sold over 600 tonnes of powder which contained melamine between October 2007 and August 2008, worth around 6.8 million yuan ($994,700), 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. The powder, used in making plastics, is added to cheat nutrition tests. One of these men was also given the death sentence.
The court had announced it would sentence 21 defendants implicated in the scandal Thursday afternoon. However, it said shortly before the court opened that nine of them would be sentenced at other courts.