HONG KONG—Authorities in the northern Chinese city of Shijiazhuang have executed two people for their role in a tainted baby milk scandal which killed at least six children and sickened hundreds of thousands.
The announcement came as groups of supporters called for the release of Zhao Lianhai, an activist parent who campaigned for the right to file lawsuits on behalf of other parents whose children were affected.
Zhao was detained by Beijing police for "inciting affray" after he traveled to the capital with 41 other parents in the hope of attracting the attention of authorities during U.S. President Barack Obama's state visit.
Milk powder salesman Zhang Yujun was executed in Hebei province after being convicted by the city's Intermediate People's Court of "endangering public safety by dangerous means," while Geng Jinping was executed for "producing and selling toxic food," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The court said in a statement that Zhang was found guilty of selling more than 600 tons of protein powder laced with melamine, a toxic industrial compound that can give a fake positive on protein tests.
It said Geng was convicted of selling more than 900 tons of tainted milk to the now-defunct Sanlu Group, which was at the heart of the scandal.
Beijing-based civil rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong said the Chinese authorities had failed to deal fairly and squarely with parents' attempts to win redress and compensation in the scandal.
"They government should have taken vigorous steps of its own accord to address this issue," Jiang said.
"Instead, they have sought to further oppress people who are already victims," he said.
"The government is criminally wrong here. This is a ridiculous situation."
Activists and lawyers say they have been warned off trying to set up any legal action against government or businesses involved in the tainted milk scandal, and faced repeated harassment if they try to protest.
The court said the evidence showed the sales taking place from mid-2007 to August 2008, when the scandal first came to light.
Both men appealed, and the Hebei Provincial Higher People's Court upheld the convictions on March 26.
The executions come after the life sentence handed down by the same court to former Sanlu chairman Tian Wenhua in January amid a series of sentences handed out to 21 Sanlu executives and suppliers.
Tian's relatively lenient sentence has drawn ire from many of the families of children made sick by Sanlu powder, who have said they wished she had also received the death sentence.
Meanwhile, New Zealand dairy cooperative Fonterra, a former stakeholder in Sanlu, called the milk powder scandal "a terrible tragedy."
The company issued a statement saying that the two men executed weren't Sanlu employees.
"These were people who set out deliberately to contaminate milk in China involving up to 22 different milk companies," it said.
"As a result of this, the Chinese government has put in place regulations that will hopefully ensure that this never happens again."
China has tightened regulations and increased inspections on producers and exporters in cooperation with U.S. officials, who have noted a drop in the number of product recalls on Chinese exports.
But it is a tough task to police the country's 450,000 registered food production and processing enterprises, of which about 350,000 employ less than 10 people.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Grace Kei Lai-see. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.