Chinese families whose children fell ill from poisoned milk have been pressured to drop compensation cases, victims’ advocates say.
The claims show the government’s lingering uneasiness over one of China’s worst contamination scandals.
Local officials were calling and visiting at least half a dozen families, urging them to drop their cases against the dairies and accept a government-sanctioned compensation plan giving €222 to most victims, said Zhao Lianhai, the father of a child who was made ill by the milk.
At least one family had decided to back out of their lawsuit, Mr Zhao said.
Mr Zhao has rallied other families through a website he created.
“One parent told me, ’I’m more than 30 years old but I’ve never before seen the county and village officials. Everyone in the family is really scared’,” said Lu Jun, an Aids activist who has been working with families of tainted milk victims in central China’s Henan province.
Infant formula contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine was blamed for killing at least six babies and making nearly 300,000 ill across China in the scandal that began in September.
Unscrupulous middlemen are accused of adding melamine, which is high in nitrogen, to watered-down milk to fool quality tests for protein content. When ingested, melamine can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.
The scandal rocked the country, culminating in a law enacted in recent weeks that consolidates hundreds of disparate regulations covering the country’s 500,000 food processing companies.
The accusations that local officials are trying to intimidate victim’s families come despite this month’s announcement by the executive vice president of China’s highest court, Shen Deyong, that parents who rejected the government’s compensation plan were welcome to file lawsuits against the dairies.
It was not clear why local officials would try to stop the families. But different levels of government in China often disagree on how to handle matters and local officials may see lawsuits as a threat to their authority with the potential to upset stability in their community.
More than 600 families have demanded higher compensation than the government plan offers – one-time payouts using money from dairies named in the scandal. Families that take the money cannot sue for more unless they can prove they were forced to agree to the compensation plan, lawyers have said.
Wang Zhenping, whose one-year-old son became ill after drinking contaminated infant formula, said he has received four phone calls from the health bureau in Henan’s Zhoukou city in the last two weeks. They had also visited his mother’s house twice.
“The last time they called me, I told them to call my lawyer,” he said, planning to continue his legal fight against Sanlu, the dairy at the centre of the crisis.
Phones at the Zhoukou city health bureau went unanswered yesterday.