BEIJING (AP) - A Chinese court on Thursday upheld the sentences of five people convicted for their involvement in a tainted milk scandal that killed six infants and sickened hundreds of thousands of children last year.
State media said justices from the Hebei Province High People's Court rejected Tian Wenhua's appeal to have her life sentence overturned. The 66-year-old was the general manager and chairwoman of now-defunct Sanlu Group Co., the dairy at the heart of the contamination. She was the highest-ranking executive charged in the food safety scandal.
The court also upheld the death sentences of Zhang Yujun, a cattle farmer, and Gao Junjie, state television said in its evening newscast. Zhang and Gao both had been convicted of producing and selling "protein powder" containing melamine.
The industrial chemical, used in the manufacture of plastics and fertilizer, was added to watered-down milk to fool inspectors testing for protein and increase profits.
Telephones at the high court were not answered Thursday evening.
Earlier Thursday, the court upheld the convictions of two brothers charged with producing toxic milk products. Geng Jinping, who managed a milk production center, was sentenced to death for selling hundreds of tons of tainted milk to Sanlu. His brother, Geng Jinzhu, a driver at the center, was given eight years.
The executions must now be approved by the State Supreme People's Court.
The harsh sentences show Beijing's resolve in tackling the country's stubborn food safety problems and an eagerness by the communist leadership to move past the embarrassing scandal.
In addition to the infant deaths, nearly 300,000 children were sickened by baby formula contaminated with melamine, which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.
The scandal, which unfolded in September, caused nationwide outrage and shook China's often unresponsive legal system into action, culminating in a law that consolidates disparate regulations covering the country's 500,000 food processing companies.
This week, a northern Chinese court became the first in the country to accept a compensation lawsuit against Sanlu, state media reported Wednesday.
The government has offered one-time payouts using money from dairies involved in the scandal, but families that take the money cannot sue for more unless they can prove they were forced to agree to the plan.
Some 500 families have rejected the offer in hopes of winning higher compensation, while about 100 others have accepted the money but still want higher payouts.
Zhao Lianhai, the father of a sickened child who has rallied other families through a Web site he created, said Thursday many parents still feel angry that courts rejected a joint lawsuit, meaning that families will have to pay expensive filing fees to pursue their cases individually.
The official Xinhua News Agency said Thursday the Communist Party's internal disciplinary committee has punished 14 top local officials in Hebei in connection with the scandal.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to