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China Sentences Tainted Milk Powder Activist to Jail

In this 2009 file photo, Zhao Lianhai, center, the father of a girl sickened after she drank tainted milk formula, speaks to journalists outside a court in China's Hebei province. Zhao, who organized a support group for parents of children sickened in one

A Chinese court has handed down a two-and-a-half year prison sentence to a man who organized a Web site for parents of children who became ill from drinking tainted milk, after his own son became sick in 2008.

Zhao Lianhai founded a group called "Kidney Stone Babies" to provide resources for parents after about 300,000 Chinese infants were made ill by milk formula deliberately tainted with melamine. In late 2008, at the height of the scandal, at least six babies died and tens of thousands of others were hospitalized.

Zhao's lawyer, Peng Jian, says court authorities in Beijing Wednesday sentenced Zhao to two and a half years in prison for the crime of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble."

When the sentence was handed down, Peng says, Zhao protested that he did not commit a crime and that the sentence is unfairly excessive. The lawyer says Zhao's wife and mother also attended the sentencing.

Peng says he is preparing an appeal, but adds he is not optimistic. It will be very difficult to change the verdict, but he says he has to make an effort.

Officials reached at the court in Beijing had no immediate comment.

Tainted milk powder began harming Chinese children in August 2008, but was not reported publicly because of the Olympics.

Afterward, though, Chinese authorities jailed or executed a handful of farmers, milk dealers and executives at Sanlu, the dairy company that sold the milk. There has been no public announcement of the sentences for government officials detained in the scandal.

Melamine is an industrial chemical that was added to poor quality milk to falsely show higher protein levels in tests.

China set up a compensation fund for children whose health was seriously damaged, but the children of many of the parents who allied with Zhao were not eligible for compensation.

The sentence comes at a sensitive time for Chinese who openly disagree with the government. Environmentalists, AIDS activists and lawyers who take on politically controversial cases have disappeared, been locked up or otherwise harassed.

One example is Tan Zuoren, who was sentenced to five years in jail earlier this year, on charges of subversion. Tan had been working to document shoddy construction he says contributed to thousands of schoolchildren's deaths in China's devastating 2008 earthquake.

China is particularly incensed that this year's Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion. Liu was a key writer of Charter 08, a document calling for widespread political reform and freedom of speech.