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A court in Beijing has handed down a death sentence on Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration. He was found guilty of taking Â¥6.5m (Â£0.4m; €0.6m; $0.9m) in bribes and gifts and of dereliction of duty for failing to ensure the safety of drugs and devices that were approved during his tenure.
Court documents quoted by China's state news agency, Xinhua, say that Mr Zheng pleaded guilty to charges that he “sought benefits” from eight domestic drug companies in exchange for approval of drugs and medical devices between June 1997 and December 2006. In addition, six drugs granted approval on the basis of false documents between 2001 and 2003 were found to be fake.
“[Mr Zheng's acts] greatly undermined the integrity of an official post and the efficiency of China's drug monitoring and supervision, endangering public life and health, and had a very negative social impact,” a court statement said.
Mr Zheng was director of the regulatory agency since its formation in May 2003 until mid-2005. Before that he was head of the State Pharmaceutical Administration from 1994 to 1998 and head of the State Drug Administration from 1998 to 2003.
Until 2002 all drugs distributed in China required approval from the State Drug Administration and then from its successor, the State Food and Drug Administration. He was investigated by the Communist Party of China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in December 2006 and was expelled from the Communist Party in March this year.
In recent years China has been plagued by scandals over fake drugs and tainted food. In the same week that Mr Zheng was sentenced, local media in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou reported that relatives of Chinese patients who died as a result of injections with allegedly fake drugs have filed a Â¥20m compensation suit against the Zhongshan University Number Three Hospital.
The injections of the allegedly fake drug called armillarisni A, made by the Qiqihar No 2 Pharmaceutical Company, are said to have contained an industrial solvent instead of pure glycerin and are claimed to be linked to 13 deaths in the hospital. The same product from the same source, but in the form of a cough medicine, is also alleged to be linked to the deaths of at least 100 people in Panama.
The harshness of the sentence is unusual. The last time someone of Mr Zheng's rank was executed was in 2000, and Mr Zheng is expected to appeal. However, Xinhua quoted the court as saying that the sentence was appropriate because of “the huge bribes involved and the great damage inflicted on the country and the public by Zheng's dereliction of duty.”
The case was widely publicised in the media in China, an example of the Chinese proverb “Kill a chicken to frighten the monkeys,” as China struggles to crack down on widespread graft and faces pressure from overseas over its lax record on food safety.
Recent food scandals include a massive recall of pet foods in the United States in March after ingredients from China were found to be tainted with melamine and other chemicals. Last month Chinese toothpaste products exported to Australia, the Dominican Republic, and Panama were found to be tainted with diethylene glycol, a chemical commonly used in antifreeze and brake fluid.