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China ex-food and drug safety chief sentenced to death

BEIJING (Reuters) - China sentenced the former head of its food and drugs agency to death for corruption on Tuesday in a surprise judgment as the government sought to contain a wave of scandals over health safety.

Zheng Xiaoyu, former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, was convicted on charges of taking bribes and dereliction of duty, Xinhua news agency reported, citing the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court.

The sentence, which was unusually harsh, could still be reduced on appeal. But it reflects the weight China’s top leaders are giving to the issues of corruption and food safety as they grapple with the fallout overseas after a series of safety breaches involving toxins in food and other products.

“Zheng was supposed to use the power given to him by the state and the people seriously and honestly, but instead he has ignored their vital interests ... by taking the bribes,” Xinhua quoted the court as saying.

“This has threatened the safety of people’s life and health and has caused an extremely bad social impact.”

Zheng, 62, a native of the south-eastern province of Fujian, headed the watchdog agency from 1998 to 2005 after rising through the ranks of state-owned pharmaceutical companies.

But he was expelled from the ruling Communist Party earlier this year after investigators said he abused approval powers to obtain bribes and win illegal profits from drug companies.

The bribes, including cash and gifts, were worth some 6.5 million yuan ( 427,450 pounds) from eight companies, and were given either directly or through his wife and son, Xinhua reported.

Under Zheng’s watch, dozens died in China from fake or bad drugs and food products. In one of the most notorious cases, in 2004, at least 13 babies died of malnutrition in Anhui province after being fed fake milk powder with no nutritional value.

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The safety of China’s food has since burst into the international spotlight after wheat gluten and rice protein containing melamine scrap was exported from China and mixed into pet food, causing deaths of cats and dogs in the United States and leading to pet food recalls.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Zheng’s sentence was an internal affair but added: “I believe it reflects the Chinese government’s determination in fighting corruption.

“China has always attached great importance to the safety and security of consumer goods, food and drugs and sees the health safety of its people as an important task,” she told a news briefing.

Zheng was also deprived of his personal property and political rights, Xinhua said, adding that investigators found he lowered standards in renewing drug production licences, leading to the manufacturing of fake drugs.

A court official contacted by telephone declined to comment.

The last time China sentenced an official of Zheng’s rank to death was in 2000, when Hu Changqing, a vice governor of the eastern Jiangxi province, and Cheng Kejie, a vice head of the National People’s Congress, were executed for taking bribes.

Zheng left the watchdog agency long before the latest scandals hit, and no official reports have directly ascribed any deaths to his crimes. But Beijing may be making a political example of Zheng to show citizens and other nations it is serious about food and drug standards.

In a related case, the maker of a fake medical additive that was linked to widespread deaths in Panama is under scrutiny, with local media reporting that families of Chinese patients killed by the ingredient have sued a hospital that gave toxic injections.

The 10 plaintiffs are demanding more than 20 million yuan total compensation after the hospital in the southern city of Guangzhou gave injections of fake Armillarisni A, made by the Qiqihar No. 2 Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., a lawyer for the hospital told the Information Times, a Guangzhou paper.

($1=7.644 Yuan)

Additional reporting by Guo Shipeng and Chris Buckley