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[BEIJING] A Beijing court sentenced the former head of China's State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) to death yesterday (29 May) after he was found guilty of taking bribes and approving unsafe products.

The move is seen as a bid to discipline the country's corruption-afflicted pharmaceutical sector.

Zheng Xiaoyu was convicted for taking bribes totalling US$848,366 from eight pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies and illegally approving their products.

He was tried in public on 16 May and has stated that he will appeal against the verdict.

Zheng headed the SFDA from its establishment in 1998 until his retirement in 2005.

His sentence came after a series of medical scandals in which dozens of people in China died.

In 2006, 11 people died after being injected with drugs produced by a manufacturer in Qiqihar, in the northeastern Heilongjiang province.

Six people died and 80 fell ill after taking an antibiotic produced in the eastern Anhui province.

Two senior SFDA officials — Hao Heping and Cao Wenzhuang, responsible for approving pharmaceutical equipment and drugs — were arrested in July 2005 and June 2006 respectively.

Both were Zheng's former secretaries. Hao was sentenced to a 15-year imprisonment in November last year, and Cao is still under investigation.

Hao Jinsong, a Beijing-based legal scholar and civil rights activist, says Zheng's death sentence reflects the Chinese authorities' determination to cleanse the public health sector.

According to Hao, taking bribes of more than US$12,000 can legally result in a death sentence, but some Chinese senior officials who have committed more serious corruption offences than Zheng have avoided the death sentence.

"This is because Zheng's misconducts are directly related to human lives and public health, and the authorities are eager to recover public confidence in the sector," Hao told SciDev.Net.

But he cautions that without a sound and transparent monitoring system empowered by the public, highly powerful government agencies like SFDA cannot eliminate serious corruption and scandals like those carried out by Zheng and his subordinates.

Zheng's wife, Liu Naixue, and son, Zheng Hairong, were also implicated in the bribes. The court said they will be investigated and sentenced separately.