Key Points:

Two men have been sentenced to death, and the woman at the head of Fonterra joint venture Sanlu Group has been given a life sentence, for their part in the Chinese contaminated milk scandal.

The Intermediate People's Court in Shijiazhuang last night handed down death sentences to Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping.

Zhang ran a workshop that was China's largest source of melamine, the substance responsible for the health crisis. Geng, who the China Daily reported had knelt on the floor of the court and begged the victims' families for forgiveness at the trial in December, was sentenced for producing and selling toxic food.

Former Sanlu chairwoman Tian Wenhua, 66, was joined in the dock by three other former top Sanlu executives facing the same charge - producing and selling fake or substandard products.

Wang Yuliang and Hang Zhiqi, both former deputy general managers, were sentenced to 15 years and eight years in prison respectively.

Wu Jusheng, former manager of the firm's raw milk department, got five years.

Fonterra was still refusing to comment on the verdicts this morning. Last night spokesman David Glendining told the Herald: "We are still studying the verdict and are therefore not in a position to comment on any details."

The Green Party said the Government and Fonterra should speak out strongly against the death sentences.

"The death sentences are a symbol of the problem, not part of the solution," said Keith Locke, Green Party Foreign Affairs spokesman.

"They show the harshness of the regime towards anyone who embarrasses it, whether they are real criminals, whistleblowers or dissenters. Many Chinese knew the milk was being contaminated but said nothing for fear of repercussions from those in authority.
"Fonterra could not get any action from local officials when it first discovered the contamination."

Life sentence

A court spokesman said another defendant, Zhang Yanzhang, was given a life sentence for endangering public safety.

At least six Chinese babies died and another 294,000 infants suffered kidney stones and other urinary problems after drinking formula tainted with melamine - an industrial compound used in making plastic chairs, flame retardants and even concrete, and added to milk to cheat nutrition tests.

It was added to the milk powder to bulk it up.

Fonterra had a 43 per cent stake in the group, which continued to manufacture melamine-tainted milk beyond August 2, the date at which Fonterra's three representatives on its board became aware of the contamination.

Fonterra said at the time that it unsuccessfully urged the company and local politicians to announce a public recall, and it only made its first public comment two days after Sanlu stopped production.

From August 2 to September 12 last year, Sanlu produced 904 tonnes of melamine-tainted baby formula powder and sold 813 tonnes of the tainted product, making $13.25 million.

Tian had pleaded guilty to the charges against her at the trial on December 31, which lasted about 14 hours.

Some families of melamine victims gathered near the court in Shijiazhuang, a gritty industrial city south of Beijing, said they wanted the death sentence for Tian.

But some also said even that would not dilute their anger about compensation and information, which they called 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 1-year-old son, Hou Haiqi, died on January 6 after doctors had diagnosed him last year as suffering kidney damage from melamine poisoning.

"I think she should be shot. A death for a death," said Zheng Shuzhen, a 48-year-old grandmother from central Henan province.

Zheng said her 1-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."

A spokesman for the court said 17 people were being sentenced for adding melamine-laced "protein powder" to milk or selling tainted milk to Sanlu or other dairy companies.

The defendants included six accused of endangering public security by dangerous means.

Liu Xinwei, Tian's lawyer, was quoted by the Beijing News on Tuesday as saying that she might not be sentenced to death.

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 a father and another grieving parent to stop them attending the trial of the dairy executives, fellow activists said.

Yesterday, police guarded the grim 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.