Death sentences in 2008 Chinese tainted milk scandal
Monday, January 26, 2009
On Thursday, the municipal intermediate people’s court in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, China pronounced sentences for 21 defendants implicated in the 2008 Chinese milk scandal which killed at least six infants and sickened nearly 300,000 others.
In the local court’s decision, 17 accused were indicted for the crimes of “producing, adding melamine-laced ‘protein powder’ to infant milk or selling tainted, fake and substandard milk to Sanlu Group or 21 other dairy companies, including six who were charged with the crime of endangering public security by dangerous means.” Four other courts in Wuji County, in Hebei, China had also tried cases on the milk scandal.
Zhang Yujun, age 40, of Quzhou County (Hebei), who produced and sold melamine-laced “protein powder” in the milk scandal, was convicted of endangering public security and sentenced to death by the Shijiazhuang intermediate people’s court.
The court also imposed the penalty of death upon Geng Jinping, who added 434 kg of melamine-laced powder to about 900 tons of fresh milk to artificially increase the protein content. He sold the tainted milk to Sanlu and some other dairy companies. His brother Geng Jinzhu was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for assisting in adding the melamine.
A suspended capital punishment sentence, pending a review, with two years probation, was handed down to Gao Junjie. Under the law, a suspended death sentence is equivalent to life imprisonment with good behavior. The court ruled that Gao designed more than 70 tons of melamine-tainted “protein powder” in a Zhengding County underground factory near Shijiazhuang. His wife Xiao Yu who assisted him, was also sentenced to five years imprisonment.
Sanlu Group General Manager Tian Wenhua, 66, a native of Nangang Village in Zhengding County, who was charged under Articles 144 and 150 of the criminal code, was sentenced to life imprisonment for producing and selling fake or substandard products. She was also fined 20 million yuan (US$2.92 million) while Sanlu, which has been declared bankrupt, was fined 49.37 million yuan ($7.3 million).
Tian Wenhua plans to appeal the guilty verdict on grounds of lack of evidence, said her lawyer Liang Zikai on Saturday. Tian testified last month during her trial that she decided not to stop production of the tainted milk products because a Fonterra designated board member handed her a document which states that a maximum of 20 mg of melamine was allowed in every kg of milk in the European Union. Liang opined that Tian should instead be charged with “liability in a major accident,” which is punishable by up to seven years imprisonment, instead of manufacturing and selling fake or substandard products.
According to Zhang Deli, chief procurator of the Hebei Provincial People’s Procuratorate, Chinese police have arrested another 39 people in connection with the scandal. Authorities last year also arrested 12 milk dealers and suppliers who allegedly sold contaminated milk to Sanlu, and six people were charged with selling melamine.
In late December, 17 people involved in producing, selling, buying and adding melamine to raw milk went on trial. Tian Wenhua and three other Sanlu executives appeared in court in Shijiazhuang, charged with producing and selling fake or substandard milk contaminated with melamine. Tian pleaded guilty, and told the court during her 14-hour December 31 trial that she learned about the tainted milk complaints and problems with her company’s BeiBei milk powder from consumer complaints in mid-May.
She then apparently led a working team to handle the case, but her company did not stop producing and selling formula until about September 11. She also did not report to the Shijiazhuang city government until August 2.
The court also sentenced Zhang Yanzhang, 20, to the lesser penalty of life imprisonment. Yanzhang worked with Zhang Yujun, buying and reselling the protein powder. The convicts were deprived of their political rights for life.
Xue Jianzhong, owner of an industrial chemical shop, and Zhang Yanjun were punished with life imprisonment and 15 years jail sentence respectively. The court found them responsible for employment of workers to produce about 200 tons of the tainted infant milk formula, and selling supplies to Sanlu, earning more than one million yuan.
“From October 2007 to August 2008, Zhang Yujun produced 775.6 tons of ‘protein powder’ that contained the toxic chemical of melamine, and sold more than 600 tons of it with a total value of 6.83 million yuan [$998,000]. He sold 230 tons of the “protein powder” to Zhang Yanzhang, who will stay behind bars for the rest of his life under the same charge. Both Zhangs were ‘fully aware of the harm of melamine’ while they produced and sold the chemical, and should be charged for endangering the public security,” the Court ruled.
|Geng Jinping, a suspect charged with producing and selling poisonous food in the tainted milk scandal, knelt before the court, begging for victims’ forgiveness|
The local court also imposed jail sentences of between five years and 15 years upon three top Sanlu executives. Wang Yuliang and Hang Zhiqi, both former deputy general managers, and Wu Jusheng, a former raw milk department manager, were respectively sentenced to 15 years, eight years and five years imprisonment. In addition, the court directed Wang to pay multi-million dollar fines. In December, Wang Yuliang had appeared at the Shijiazhuang local court in a wheelchair, after what the Chinese state-controlled media said was a failed suicide attempt.
The judgment also states “the infant milk powder was then resold to private milk collectors in Shijiazhuang, Tangsan, Xingtai and Zhangjiakou in Hebei.” Some collectors added it to raw milk to elevate apparent protein levels, and the milk was then resold to Sanlu Group.
“The Chinese government authorities have been paying great attention to food safety and product quality,” Yu Jiang Yu, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said. “After the case broke out, the Chinese government strengthened rules and regulations and took a lot of other measures to strengthen regulations and monitor food safety,” she added.
In the People’s Republic of China, the intermediate people’s court is the second lowest local people’s court. Under the Organic Law of the People’s Courts of the People’s Republic of China, it has jurisdiction over important local cases in the first instance and hear appeal cases from the basic people’s court.
The 2008 Chinese milk scandal was a food safety incident in China involving milk and infant formula, and other food materials and components, which had been adulterated with melamine. In November 2008, the Chinese government reported an estimated 300,000 victims have suffered; six infants have died from kidney stones and other acute renal infections, while 860 babies were hospitalized.
Melamine is normally used to make plastics, fertilizer, coatings and laminates, wood adhesives, fabric coatings, ceiling tiles and flame retardants. It was added by the accused to infant milk powder, making it appear to have a higher protein content. In 2004, a watered-down milk resulted in 13 Chinese infant deaths from malnutrition.
The tainted milk scandal hit the headlines on 16 July, after sixteen babies in Gansu Province who had been fed on milk powder produced by Shijiazhuang-based Sanlu Group were diagnosed with kidney stones. Sanlu is 43% owned by New Zealand’s Fonterra. After the initial probe on Sanlu, government authorities confirmed the health problem existed to a lesser degree in products from 21 other companies, including Mengniu, Yili, and Yashili.
From August 2 to September 12 last year Sanlu produced 904 tonnes of melamine-tainted infant milk powder. It sold 813 tonnes of the fake or substandard products, making 47.5 million yuan ($13.25 million). In December, Xinhua reported that the Ministry of Health confirmed 290,000 victims, including 51,900 hospitalized. It further acknowledged reports of “11 suspected deaths from melamine contaminated milk powder from provinces, but officially confirmed 3 deaths.”
Sanlu Group which filed a bankruptcy petition, that was accepted by the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People’s Court last month, and the other 21 dairy companies, have proposed a 1.1 billion yuan ($160 million) compensation plan for court settlement. The court appointed receiver was granted six months to conclude the sale of Sanlu’s assets for distribution to creditors. The 22 dairy companies offered “families whose children died would receive 200,000 yuan ($29,000), while others would receive 30,000 yuan ($4,380) for serious cases of kidney stones and 2,000 yuan ($290) for less severe cases.”
Sanlu stopped production on September 12 amid huge debts estimated at 1.1 billion yuan. On December 19, the company borrowed 902 million yuan for medical and compensation payment to victims of the scandal. On January 16, Sanlu paid compensation of 200,000 yuan (29,247 U.S. dollars) to Yi Yongsheng and Jiao Hongfang, Gangu County villagers, the parents of the first baby who died.
“Children under three years old, who had drunk tainted milk and had disease symptoms could still come to local hospitals for check-ups, and would receive free treatment if diagnosed with stones in the urinary system,” said Mao Qun’an, spokesman of the Ministry of Health on Thursday, adding that “the nationwide screening for sickened children has basically come to an end.”
“As of Thursday, about 90% of families of 262,662 children who were sickened after drinking the melamine-contaminated milk products had signed compensation agreements with involved enterprises and accepted compensation,” the China Dairy Industry Association said Friday, without revealing, however, the amount of damages paid. The Association (CDIA) also created a fund for payment of the medical bills for the sickened babies until they reach the age of 18.
Chinese data shows that those parents who signed the state-backed compensation deal include the families of six children officially confirmed dead, and all but two of 891 made seriously ill, the report said. Families of 23,651 children made ill by melamine tainted milk, however, have not received the compensation offer, because of “wrong or untrue” registration details, said Xinhua.
Several Chinese parents, however, demanded higher levels of damages from the government. Zhao Lianhai announced Friday that he and three other parents were filing a petition to the Ministry of Health. The letter calls for “free medical care and follow-up services for all victims, reimbursement for treatment already paid for, and further research into the long-term health effects of melamine among other demands,” the petition duly signed by some 550 aggrieved parents and Zhao states.
“Children are the future of every family, and moreover, they are the future of this country. As consumers, we have been greatly damaged,” the petition alleged. Chinese investigators also confirmed the presence of melamine in nearly 70 milk products from more than 20 companies, quality control official Li Changjiang admitted.
In addition, a group of Chinese lawyers, led by administrator Lin Zheng, filed Tuesday a $5.2 million lawsuit with the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China (under Chief Grand Justice Wang Shengjunin), in Beijing, on behalf of the families of 213 children’s families. The class-action product liability case against 22 dairy companies, include the largest case seeking $73,000 compensation for a dead child.
According to a statement to the Shanghai Stock Exchange Market Friday, China’s Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group Company, which has a domestic market share of milk powder at 8 percent, reported a net loss in 2008 because of the milk scandal. A Morgan Stanley report states the expected company’s 2008 loss at 2.3 billion yuan. The scandal also affected Yili’s domestic rivals China Mengniu Dairy Company Limited and the Bright Group. Mengniu suffered an expected net loss of 900 million yuan despite earnings in the first half of 2008, while the Bright Group posted a third quarter loss at 271 million yuan last year.
New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra, said Saturday it accepted the Chinese court’s guilty verdicts but alleged it had no knowledge of the criminal actions taken by those involved. “We accept the court’s findings but Fonterra supports the New Zealand Government’s position on the death penalty. We have been shocked and disturbed by the information that has come to hand as a result of the judicial process,” said Fonterra Chief Executive Andrew Ferrier.
“Fonterra deeply regrets the harm and pain this tragedy has caused so many Chinese families,” he added. “We certainly would never have approved of these actions. I am appalled that the four individuals deliberately released product containing melamine. These actions were never reported to the Sanlu Board and fundamentally go against the ethics and values of Fonterra,” Ferrier noted.
Fonterra, which controls more than 95 percent of New Zealand’s milk supply, is the nation’ biggest multinational business, its second-biggest foreign currency earner and accounts for more than 24 percent of the nation’s exports. Fonterra was legally responsible for informing Chinese health authorities of the tainted milk scandal in August, and by December it had written off its $200 million investment in Sanlu Group.
Amnesty International also strongly voiced its opposition to the imposition of capital punishment by the Chinese local court and raised concerns about New Zealand’s implication in the milk scandal. “The death penalty will not put right the immense suffering caused by these men. The death penalty is the ultimate, cruel and inhumane punishment and New Zealand must take a stand to prevent further abuses of human rights.” AI New Zealand chief executive Patrick Holmes said on Saturday.
“The New Zealand government does not condone the death sentence but we respect their right to take a very serious attitude to what was extremely serious offending,” said John Phillip Key, the 38th and current Prime Minister of New Zealand and leader of the National Party. He criticized Fonterra’s response Monday, saying, “Fonterra did not have control of the vertical production chain, in other words they were making the milk powder not the supply of the milk, so it was a difficult position and they did not know until quite late in the piece. Nevertheless they probably could front more for this sort of thing.”
Keith Locke, current New Zealand MP, and the opposition Green Party foreign affairs spokesman, who was first elected to parliament in 1999 called on the government and Fonterra to respond strongly against the Chinese verdict. “They show the harshness of the regime towards anyone who embarrasses it, whether they are real criminals, whistleblowers or dissenters,” he said. “Many Chinese knew the milk was being contaminated but said nothing for fear of repercussions from those in authority. Fonterra could not get any action from local officials when it first discovered the contamination. There was only movement, some time later, when the matter became public,” he noted.
Green Party explained “it is time Fonterra drops its overly cautious act.” The party, however, stressed the death penalty is not a answer to the problems which created the Chinese milk scandal. “The Green Party is totally opposed to the death penalty. We would like to see the government and, indeed, Fonterra, speaking out and urging the Chinese government to stop the death penalty,” said Green Party MP Sue Kedgley.