Chinese Regulator Sentenced to Death

By Audra Ang
Associated Press
Saturday, July 7, 2007

BEIJING, July 6 -- A former department head at China's drug regulation agency was sentenced to death Friday on charges of accepting bribes and neglecting official duties. Cao Wenzhuang, a department director at the State Food and Drug Administration, was given the death sentence with a two-year reprieve, said his lawyer, Gao Zicheng. Although the sentence was unusually harsh given the charges, such suspended death sentences in China are usually commuted to life in prison if the convict is deemed to have reformed.

Cao, 45, who oversaw the pharmaceutical registration department, had been secretary to Zheng Xiaoyu, the head of the agency, in the 1980s. In May, Zheng was sentenced to death for taking bribes to approve substandard medicines, including an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths.

In the pharmaceuticals department, Cao had the power to approve drug production in China from 2002 to 2006.

He was convicted of accepting $307,000 in bribes from two medical companies based in Jilin and Guangdong provinces that were seeking approval to sell their products. He also was convicted of neglecting his duties in approving drugs.

In its judgment, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court said the death penalty was warranted given the "huge bribes involved, and his refusal to confess . . . and reluctance to return the money," the state-run New China News Agency reported.

But he was given a two-year reprieve because he provided evidence that helped with the investigation of other cases, the news agency said. It gave no further details.

"Cao does not admit to taking any bribes," Gao, the lawyer, said in a telephone interview. It was not immediately clear whether Cao would appeal.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced three recalls of Chinese-made products on Thursday, covering jewelry that it said could cause lead poisoning, and magnetic building sets and plastic castles with small parts.

About 20,000 sets of Essentials for Kids jewelry were recalled because the metal jewelry sets contain high levels of lead that can be toxic if ingested by young children, the agency said.

Additionally, 800 Mag Stix magnetic building sets and 68,000 Shape Sorting Toy Castles were pulled because they posed choking hazards to young children.

The orders add to the list of recent U.S. government actions to ban, recall or restrict Chinese imports -- including juice, pet food and toothpaste -- because they are suspected of containing high levels of toxins.

China has responded by stepping up enforcement of health and safety rules in the export industries that are driving its economic growth. But Beijing also heatedly defends its record as a supplier of reliable goods and has complained that safety warnings may be driven by protectionism.

The country is overhauling its chaotic food and drug safety mechanisms, which are handicapped by competition among government agencies, murky laws and corruption.

Under Zheng's tenure as top drug regulator from 1998 to 2005, his agency approved six medicines that turned out to be fake, and the drugmakers used falsified documents to apply for approvals, state media have reported.

His death sentence was unusually heavy even for China, which is believed to carry out more court-ordered executions than all other nations combined -- and probably indicates the government's determination to confront the recent scares involving unsafe food and drugs.

On Thursday, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court also handed down verdicts for four other drug supervision officials involved in corruption cases.

The New China News Agency said Wang Guorong, former secretary-general of a think tank in charge of setting up drug standards, was sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes.

Li Zhiyong, another official in the think tank, along with Lu Aiying and Ma Teng, two officials with the State Food and Drug Administration, were given jail terms of up to 15 years on graft charges, the news agency said without giving further details.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company