SHIJIAZHUANG, CHINA // The former dairy firm boss at the centre of China's tainted milk scandal stood trial today over a trail of death and sickness that pushed Chinese products off store shelves around the world. Relatives of the victims gathered at the court in this northern Chinese city, calling for justice after chemicals-laced milk killed six babies and left another 294,000 suffering kidney and urinary troubles.
But lawyers monitoring the case for the families said the charges laid against the former head of the Sanlu Group, Tian Wenhua, were weaker than initially expected and she would escape the death penalty. Sanlu was the first and biggest dairy producer found to have sold milk laced with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics which was mixed into watered-down milk to give the appearance of higher levels of protein.
Mrs Tian, 66, and three colleagues were put on trial on charges of producing and selling defective products, which lawyers said would mean a maximum punishment of life in prison. In all, 22 Chinese dairy firms were found to have sold tainted milk, and the government last week ordered them to pay 1.1 billion yuan (Dh590 million) in compensation to the families of babies that died or fell ill.
The families and their lawyers criticised the sum as woefully inadequate, with some parents set to only receive about 2,000 yuan. This reflected an apparently widespread complaint from the relatives of the victims that they had not been allowed to tell the courts their version of events, and that authorities had rejected civil compensation lawsuits. In China, trials often last just one day and verdicts are announced shortly afterwards.
The four Sanlu executives are the highest profile figures to be hauled before the courts over the scandal, after 17 people mostly accused of being middlemen went on trial in recent days. Those verdicts have yet to be announced, but some of the defendants could face the death penalty. The milk scandal became a global problem after it emerged some of the tainted products had been exported, leading to recalls of Chinese dairy foods around the world.