Images: Grandmother of baby killed by contaminated milk.
Greg Baker  /  AP
Zheng Shuzhen, center, the grandmother of a baby who died after drinking tainted milk, cries outside a court in Shijiazhuang, China, on Thursday. Although the chairwoman of the firm at the center of the scandal was jailed, Zheng said the sentence didn't "lessen our hate" for her.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/22/2009 11:03:44 AM ET 2009-01-22T16:03:44

A Chinese court on Thursday sentenced two men to death for their role in the production and sale of melamine-tainted milk that killed at least six children and made nearly 300,000 ill.

The severity of the punishments handed down in the closed-door but closely watched trial appeared to be a nod to grieving parents and an outraged public just before the biggest Chinese holiday of the year.

Several affected families were waiting outside the court in a gritty industrial city south of Beijing, demanding revenge, compensation and plain justice.

Inside were government officials, middlemen and executives from the now-bankrupt Sanlu Group at the heart of the scandal, accused of peddling poisonous products or turning a blind eye to their sale.

One of the men sentenced to death was Zhang Yujun, 40. Zhang had made and sold over 600 tons of powder which contained melamine between October 2007 and August 2008, worth around $994,700, the official China Daily quoted prosecutors saying earlier this month.

A second man, Geng Jinping, was also given the death penalty for producing and selling toxic food.

Industrial compound
The powder was bought by middlemen who added it to pooled, watered-down milk from farmers that was then sold on to Sanlu.

Another man was sentenced to life in prison for his role in peddling the powder which contained melamine, an industrial compound used to cheat nutrition tests because its high nitrogen content mimics protein in some controls.

Sanlu failed to report cases of Chinese children developing kidney stones and other complications from drinking their milk months before news of the problem broke in September.

Tian Wenhua, 66, the former general manager and chairwoman of Sanlu Group Co., was given a life sentence. She was the highest-ranking official charged in the food safety scandal, widely seen as a national disgrace that highlighted corporate and official shortcomings and corruption.

With the nation about to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday next week, the most important holiday in China and a time for families to gather together, the government may hope the judgments will end public outrage.

The claims of official concealment and indifference have turned the milk powder case into a volatile political issue for the ruling Communist Party, which is wary of protest.

A total of 21 defendants were being sentenced Thursday in connection with the case.

The sentences were read out outside the court, where families of babies sickened in the scandal had anxiously gathered.

'I've run out of tears'
Zheng Shuzhen, from Henan province, said her 1-year-old granddaughter died in June after drinking Sanlu milk.

"I've run out of tears. ... That's why I came today. Even if (Tian) dies a hundred times over, it won't lessen our hate," Zheng said.

Police detained two parents to stop them attending the trial of the dairy executives, one father and fellow activists said on Wednesday. On Thursday, police guarded the courthouse, nudging people away but avoiding harsh confrontation.

Normally used to make plastics and fertilizer, melamine can cause kidney stones and kidney failure when ingested in large amounts. The discovery of melamine in dairy exports such as chocolate and yogurt triggered a slew of product recalls overseas.

Sanlu, along with the other 21 dairy companies involved in the scandal, have proposed a 1.1 billion yuan ($160 million) compensation plan. More than 200 families have filed suit demanding higher compensation and long-term treatment for their babies.

Several parents who have been offered compensation said by telephone that the trial will not end their worries about their children's future.

"What we want is not a verdict. We want the government to properly research the effects of melamine and tell us what to expect. Now melamine is still a blank," said Ma Hongbin, a company technician in the far southern city of Shenzhen, who said his son Ma Tianxing had required an operation to remove kidney stones and ease complications.

"I won't sign the compensation agreement until the government studies the long-term effects of melamine ... Compensation should be tied to that, not to some arbitrary guesswork."

More on China | melamine

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Death sentences in China milk scandal

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