January 22, 2009 / 5:45 AM / 9 years ago

China melamine trial triggers anger, questions

(Corrects spelling of names Hou Rongbo and Hou Haiqi in seventh paragraph)

By Lucy Hornby

SHIJIAZHUANG, China, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Families hit by China's toxic milk scandal demanded revenge, compensation and plain answers on Thursday as they awaited the sentencing of company executives accused of wrongdoing.

At least six Chinese babies died and nearly 300,000 fell ill last year with kidney stones after drinking formula tainted with the industrial compound melamine, the latest in a series of scares to blight the made-in-China brand.

A court in Shijiazhuang, a gritty industrial city south of Beijing, was due to announce verdicts and sentences on Thursday in the trial of the Sanlu dairy group bosses and city officials accused of failing to report the growing numbers of sick children.

Tian Wenhua, 66-year-old former general manager of the now bankrupt Sanlu Group, pleaded guilty on Dec. 31 to charges of "producing and selling fake or substandard products", the Xinhua news agency said. She faces a possible life sentence.

With the nation about the celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday next week, the government may hope the judgments will end public outrage.

Some families of melamine victims gathered in Shijiazhuang said they wanted the maximum sentence for Tian. But some also said even that would not dilute their anger about compensation and information they call inadequate.

"We hope that this woman gets the maximum sentence possible," said Hou Rongbo, a man from eastern Shandong province, shivering outside the grey courthouse waiting for the verdict. "We hope that this will send a signal to all milk companies in the world."

Hou said his one-year-old son, Hou Haiqi, died on Jan. 6 after doctors last year diagnosed him as suffering kidney damage from melamine, used in making plastic chairs, flame retardants and even concrete and added to milk to cheat nutrition tests.

"I think she should be shot. A death for a death," said Zheng Shuzhen, a 48-year-old grandmother from central Henan province, who said her one-year-old granddaughter, Zhou Mengxian, died in June of kidney failure after drinking Sanlu milk formula but was not included in the list of victims.

"My granddaughter died, and so she should die too."

POLITICAL ISSUE

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

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.

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.

Several parents who have been offered compensation under a government plan have 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." (Writing by Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie)



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