(Adds additional sentence)
By Lucy Hornby
SHIJIAZHUANG, China, Jan 22 (Reuters) - 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. Zhang had made and sold over 600 tonnes of powder which contained melamine between October 2007 and August 2008, worth around 6.8 million yuan ($994,700), the official China Daily quoted prosecutors saying earlier this month.
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.
Its former general manager, Tian Wenhua, is also expected to be sentenced on Thursday on charges of producing and selling fake or substandard products. She pleaded guilty on Dec 31.
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.
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 and Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates)