China detains parents protesting tainted milk

January 03, 2009|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,Los Angeles Times


Chinese police have detained at least five parents who were trying to hold a news conference to publicize the plight of their children, who are suffering from kidney stones as a result of drinking tainted baby formula.

The parents were taken late Thursday to a hotel often used by police as a temporary detention center on the outskirts of Beijing. They had scheduled a news conference in the capital for yesterday afternoon, according to lawyers.

"It is sorrowful for our nation. They just wanted to speak their voice," said Xu Zhiyuan, a Beijing-based lawyer and activist who represents 111 parents. He said the parents were not under arrest, but what was euphemistically called "temporary restricted personal freedom."

The organizer of the news conference, Zhao Lianhai, 36, is a former employee of China's food safety watchdog whose 3-year-old son developed kidney stones from the formula. He has been among the most vocal of the parents and started a Web site, called Stone Babies, about the victims. Chinese censors blocked the site yesterday .

Despite the detentions, a small group of parents, watched by police, spoke to reporters yesterday on a Beijing sidewalk.

Six babies died and as many as 300,000 were sickened after drinking the baby formula, which had been spiked with melamine, a compound used for plastics. Dairy companies had been adding it to make protein content appear higher.

Enraged parents in recent days have been protesting a financial settlement that they say the Chinese government is forcing down their throats. Parents say that the amounts offered - $300 for mild kidney stones and $4,400 for children who required hospitalization - do not even cover what they've already spent on medical treatment and that inadequate attention has been devoted to the long-term impact on the children's health. The deal provides free medical treatment for the kidney condition from now until the children reach 18.

"We don't know how long the disease will last. Will it get worse? Will our daughter have kidney problems for life?" complained Li Yanfang, 28. Her 17-month-old daughter has a small kidney stone that hasn't resolved itself after months of spoon-feeding water and medical treatment that has cost the family $450.

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