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China court upholds death sentences in milk scandal

BEIJING (AP)--An appeals court March 26 reaffirmed death sentences of three people for their roles in contaminating milk that sickened tens of thousands of babies, making it almost certain they will be executed in one of China's worst food safety scandals.

The Hebei Province People's High Court's support for the harsh sentences underscores China's resolve in tackling its recurring food safety problems and an eagerness by the communist leadership to move past the embarrassing scandal.

Six children died and nearly 300,000 were sickened by baby formula tainted with melamine, which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.

The industrial chemical, used in the manufacture of plastics and fertilizer, was added to watered-down milk to fool inspectors testing for protein and increase profits.

The court in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, upheld the death sentences of Zhang Yujun, Gao Junjie and Geng Jinping for their role in the scandal, state media said. Zhang, a cattle farmer, and Gao both had been convicted of producing and selling "protein powder" containing melamine.

Geng, who managed a milk production center, was sentenced to death for selling hundreds of tons of tainted milk to the now-defunct Sanlu Group Co. His brother, Geng Jinzhu, a driver at the center, was given eight years and his sentence was upheld March 26.

Also March 26, the court rejected the life sentence appeal of Tian Wenhua. The 66-year-old woman was the general manager and chairwoman of Sanlu, the dairy at the heart of the contamination. She was the highest-ranking executive charged in the food safety scandal.

Telephones at the high court were not answered March 26 evening.

The executions must now be approved by the State Supreme People's Court.

Nationwide outrage has simmered since the problem unfolded in September and has galvanized China's often unresponsive legal system into action. Last month, the legislature enacted a law that consolidates disparate regulations covering the country's 500,000 food processing companies and promises tougher penalties for makers of unsafe products.

The public fury has been further stoked by reports of an apparent cover-up by companies involved and safety officials ignoring tips and warnings from parents and doctors. Many Chinese are suspicious that because of high-level pressure for last summer's Beijing Olympics to smoothly, some people who were aware of crisis may have been afraid to speak out, even as babies were dying.

In late March, a northern Chinese court became the first in the country to accept a compensation lawsuit against Sanlu, state media reported March 25.

The government has offered one-time payouts using money from dairies involved in the scandal, but families that take the money cannot sue for more unless they can prove they were forced to agree to the plan.

Some 500 families have rejected the offer in hopes of winning higher compensation, while about 100 others have accepted the money but still want higher payouts.

Zhao Lianhai, the father of a sickened child who has rallied other families through a Web site he created, said March 26 many parents still feel angry that courts rejected a joint lawsuit, meaning that families will have to pay expensive filing fees to pursue their cases individually.

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