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China jails father of tainted milk victim for two and half years

Posted by Author on November 10, 2010

By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing, The Financial Times, Nov. 10, 2010 –

A Chinese activist who organised a support group for parents of children affected by one of the country’s worst food safety scandals has been sentenced to 2½ years in prison on a charge often used to silence government critics.

A Beijing court on Wednesday handed down the unusually harsh sentence for “disturbing social order” on Zhao Lianhai, whose young son fell ill in 2008 after drinking baby formula tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical.

At least six children in China died after drinking melamine-tainted milk and more than 300,000 were left with kidney problems.

The scandal was initially ­covered up by the local authorities and, allegedly, also a central government ministry to ensure that it did not overshadow the Beijing Olympic Games, which opened at about the same time.
Li Fangping, Mr Zhao’s lawyer, said the prosecution’s case revolved around three “crimes”: co-ordinating parents to hold up small signs in front of a court and a factory involved in the scandal, giving interviews to international news organisations in a public place and overseeing a small gathering at a restaurant for affected parents.

Mr Zhao’s sentence appears to be part of a wider crackdown on political activism that has intensified since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the dissident now serving an 11-year prison sentence following his calls for political reform.

The milk scandal provoked outrage from all sectors of Chinese society, and in the aftermath of the Olympics, Beijing ordered an investigation that found more than 20 companies had been selling products tainted with melamine, which is used in plastics and fertiliser.

A farmer and a melamine producer were subsequently convicted and executed and a number of senior company executives were jailed.

After his infant son fell ill from drinking tainted formula, Mr Zhao started a support group and website for parents to share information on health problems and exchange advice on suing the companies involved.

Mr Zhao was first detained in November 2009 as compensation claims started to make their way to the courts and just days before the first visit to China by Barack Obama, the US president.

Mr Zhao’s wife told the Financial Times that he would appeal against his sentence and launch a hunger strike in protest.

The Financial Times

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