SHIJIAZHUANG, China (AP) -- A Chinese court condemned two men to death on Thursday and gave a dairy boss life in prison in the first sentences handed down in the tainted milk scandal, which ignited public anger and accusations of cover-ups.
The sentences and a recent announcement of a compensation plan for the victims appear to be part of a government bid to put an end to the crisis.
In a reflection of the trial's sensitivity, dozens of police guarded the courthouse and cordoned off the surrounding area with plastic barriers. Officers told the victims' families to keep about 100 yards away.
Investigations showed that middlemen who sold milk to dairy companies were watering down raw milk, then mixing in the banned industrial chemical melamine in dairy products to make them appear to have higher protein content.
Infant formula tainted with melamine was blamed in the deaths of at least six babies and the illnesses of nearly 300,000.
A court in the northern city of Shijiazhuang gave a life sentence to Tian Wenhua, 66, the former general manager and chairwoman of Sanlu Group Co., the dairy at the center of the crisis. She was the highest-ranking official charged in the food safety scandal, which was exposed in September.
During her Dec. 31 trial, Tian admitted she had known of problems with her company's products for months before informing authorities. Tian pleaded guilty to charges of producing and selling fake or substandard dairy products.
Some of the relatives of the victims, who gathered outside the court in cold weather in northern China, said Tian got off lightly.
"My granddaughter died. She (Tian) should die too, she should be shot," said Zheng Shuzhen, of Henan province, who said her 1-year-old granddaughter died in June after drinking Sanlu milk. "She has brought such harm to the public, to children."
The court sentenced Zhang Yujun, 40, to death for running a workshop that produced a melamine-tainted powder branded as protein enriching — which was added to milk apparently to fool quality tests, said spokesman Wang Wei. Melamine is rich in nitrogen and the protein content is measured by nitrogen.
Geng Jinping was also given the death penalty for producing and selling toxic food. A third man, Gao Junjie, was given a suspended death sentence, which is usually commuted to a life sentence.
Among the 21 sentences announced, two other life terms were handed down, while the remaining were given jail terms of two to 15 years, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
A lawyer advising victims' families said the death sentences and life terms were "cruel and heavy."
"It was a problem of the system, but they were brought to court as scapegoats," said Li Fangping. "No government officials were charged for failing to fulfill their inspection responsibility."
Tian was also fined $2.92 million while Sanlu, which has been declared bankrupt, was fined $7.3 million.
Zhao Lianhai, who has set up a Web site to help organize parents whose children were sickened, said he and other parents plan to travel to Beijing on Friday to petition the Ministry of Health. Zhao and the others say an official compensation plan was put together without their input and does not offer enough long-term help.
Sanlu, along with the other 21 dairy companies involved in the scandal, have proposed a $160 million compensation plan. More than 200 families have filed suit demanding higher compensation and long-term treatment for their babies.
Normally used to make plastics and fertilizer, melamine can cause kidney stones and kidney failure when ingested in large amounts. The discovery of melamine in dairy exports such as chocolate and yogurt triggered a slew of product recalls overseas.