November 10, 2010 / 6:28 AM / 10 years ago

China court sentences melamine milk activist to jail

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese court on Wednesday handed down a two-and-a-half year jail sentence to a man who organised a website for parents of children who became ill from drinking tainted milk after his own son became sick.

The court found Zhao Lianhai guilty of “inciting social disorder,” his wife Li Xuemei told Reuters.

“Of course we cannot accept this. We will appeal. This is something we have to do,” Li said by telephone after the verdict was read out in a Beijing court.

Zhao founded “Kidney Stone Babies” to provide information and resources for parents after about 300,000 Chinese infants were made ill, with some 50,000 hospitalised, in 2008 after drinking milk formula deliberately tainted with melamine. At least six babies died.

Police formally arrested Zhao last December, charging him with the crime of picking quarrels and provoking trouble. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment.

“He has already been in jail almost a year. It’s so unfair,” Li added.

Amnesty International condemned the sentence.

“We are appalled that the authorities have imprisoned a man the Chinese public rightly view as a protector of children, not a criminal,” Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Asia-Pacific, said in a statement.

“Zhao Lianhai should never have been arrested for organising a self-help group and exercising his legal rights to seek compensation from a commercial firm,” Baber added.

After an initial cover-up during the Olympic Games in Beijing, China jailed or executed a handful of farmers, milk dealers and executives at Sanlu, the dairy firm that sold the tainted milk, but never announced the sentences for government officials detained after the scandal.

Farmers and dealers had put melamine, an ingredient in plastics and fertiliser, in poor quality milk to show higher protein levels in tests.

Sanlu executives said they reported the problem to the government in August 2008, shortly before the Olympic Games began, but China took no public action until September, when Sanlu’s partner, dairy cooperative Fonterra, took the matter up with the New Zealand government.

China set up a compensation fund for children whose health had been seriously damaged, but the children of many of the parents who allied with Zhao were not eligible for compensation.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ken Wills

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