Court to Order Retrial in Case of Milk Scandal Parent Activist

2015-06-15
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Guo Li's identity card issued by the China Disabled Persons' Federation.
Guo Li's identity card issued by the China Disabled Persons' Federation.
Photo courtesy of Guo Li

A court in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong has cast doubts over the jailing of Guo Li, a father who campaigned for compensation for babies and infants sickened by the 2008 melamine-tainted milk scandal, he told RFA on Monday.

Guo Li, a simultaneous interpreter, was handed a five-year sentence by a court in Guangdong's Chaozhou in 2010 for "extortion" after he launched a campaign for compensation from Guangzhou-based infant formula maker Scient after his child got kidney stones.

After his release last year, Guo lodged an appeal with the Guangdong Provincial High Court, which recently issued a judgment highly critical of the original decision.

"They were of the opinion that the facts of the case were unclear, there was insufficient evidence, the [court of first instance] had broken two regulations, and that the case against me was inconclusive," Guo said.

"The Guangdong High People's Court ordered my re-arraignment ... which my lawyer told me is lawyer-speak for ordering a retrial," he said.

Guo welcomed the news, in spite of suffering ongoing mental and physical health problems he attributes to maltreatment including poor food and dirty water in prison.

"This should be excellent news, but we still have to wait for the final judgment, which they could hand down directly, or they could order a fresh trial," he said.

The provincial court found insufficient evidence to prove that Guo had used threats to extort material gains from the company, according to the judgement.

"The appeal meets the criteria for a retrial," it said. "This court will proceed with an arraignment in accordance with article 242, clause 2 of the Criminal Procedure Law of the People's Republic of China."

Melamine scandal

Guo's child was one of 300,000 made ill by infant formula milk laced with the industrial chemical melamine, which saw a total of 21 people convicted for their roles in the scandal, two of whom were executed.

The government said after the 2008 scandal that it had destroyed all tainted milk powder, but reports of melamine-laced products have occasionally re-emerged.

Guo detailed three years of harsh treatment during his prison sentence, as the authorities put pressure on him to "admit to his crimes."

"They kept hassling me to plead guilty and sign a document, so I could get an early release," Guo told RFA. "I thought it was very strange ... and I didn't do it. I stuck to my guns."

"During that period, of course, I had a lot of beatings and a lot of solitary confinement," he said. "They held me in isolation."

In earlier interviews, Guo told RFA that he was held in a cell measuring little more than one meter across and deprived of food and water, and given moldy food and dirty ditch-water instead.

He said he attributes his mental and physical health problems to this experience.

"My memory [has been affected], and there have been very big changes in my personality," Guo said. "Sometimes I have angry outbursts towards my family, and I feel as if I am outside my own body, and I haven't the energy to do the things I'd like to do."

"I have no way to find work, because I am now designated a disabled person," Guo said, adding that he has been recognized as disabled by the China Disabled Persons' Federation.

"The maltreatment I received in prison has had a bad effect on my body and my mind," he said.

One of the biggest casualties of Guo's stay in prison has been his relationship with the daughter whose rights he fought so hard for.

Now six, she is unable to understand why her father was absent for so long.

"She asks me why I paid no attention to her during the five or six years I was in there," he said. "I have no reply to that."

'Ray of sunshine'

Fellow "kidney stone baby" relative Jiang Yalin said the news of Guo's retrial was a "single ray of sunshine" for campaigners.

"This was no individual matter, no civil dispute," Jiang said. "This was a political case."

At least four infants died from kidney stones, and many of those who got sick, like Jiang's daughter, have yet to return to full health.

But the authorities retaliated against the most vocal parent activists, including Zhao Lianhai, who launched an advocacy group, Kidney Stone Babies after officials refused to meet with victims' families, or to allocate compensation funds earmarked for the children.

Like many others, Jiang's own daughter still hasn't recovered from the melamine-linked kidney stones, which have led to calcification.

"Of course I am happy that the case will be retried ... but it's not realistic on the basis of this case to think that the kidney stone babies will receive fair compensation," she said.

She said promises from then-premier Wen Jiabao that the government would foot the medical bills for all of the children affected by melamine-tainted milk haven't been kept.

Greater fallout

The fallout from the melamine milk scandal is still being felt throughout the greater China region.

In Hong Kong, parallel traders began buying up imported infant formula powder in bulk for resale to worried parents across the internal border in mainland China.

In September 2012, the investigative reporter who first exposed the scandal of melamine-tainted infant formula in 2008 quit his job, saying his ideals have been crushed.

Jian Guanzhou, the first journalist to name Sanlu as the source of contaminated milk powder in a story for the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post in September 2008, announced he was leaving a job into which he had "poured the most precious years of my youth, my sorrow, my dreams and feelings."

"Now my ideal is dead, so I'll get going," Jian wrote.

And in March 2013, authorities in the eastern city of Suzhou found that a Chinese company was selling fake imported baby milk to cater to massive demand for foreign brands among worried parents.

The Suzhou-based Hero Import and Export (Suzhou) Co. is under investigation following allegations that its Netherlands-branded "Hero" baby milk came from a number of unidentified sources, state television reported via a weekly consumer show this week.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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