○ Guo Li, father of a girl who was a victim of the 2008 tainted milk scandal, sought compensation from manufacturer but was sent to jail for extortion
○ He appealed his conviction after serving five years in prison and was exonerated on April 7
○ With a broken family, no job and a disability, Guo now faces a bleak future
After China's tainted milk scandal makes headlines,crowds of Chinese parents gather outside a hospital in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province,to have their children examined on September 21, 2008. Photo: IC
"Guo Li is not guilty."
When the judge from the High People's Court of Guangdong Province finally announced his verdict on April 7, Guo looked unmoved. Although the court had found in his favor this time, the 49-year-old had already served the five-year prison sentence that was just overturned.
Guo is one of thousands of parents whose children fell ill during the 2008 Chinese milk scandal, a food safety incident in which an estimated 300,000 babies in China fell ill after consuming contaminated milk, while six died. The scandal devastated China's dairy industry and destroyed the public's trust in China's food safety.
In 2009, after he asked for 3 million yuan ($435,400) in compensation from Scient, the Guangdong-based dairy manufacturer who produced his daughter's milk powder, Guo, a Beijinger, was arrested by the Guangdong police on charges of "extortion." Guo pled not guilty, but was nevertheless sentenced to serve five years in a prison in Jieyang, South China's Guangdong Province.
After he was released from prison in 2014, Guo appealed his case.
Although he has now successfully overturned his conviction, Guo still faces a bleak future. Once an interpreter and business negotiator whose annual income exceeded 1 million yuan ($145,000), he is now divorced and isn't allowed to see his daughter. His time in prison has also left him disabled in one leg.
"Nine years have passed, but this is just the beginning of my road to defend my rights," Guo told the Global Times on Monday in a phone interview. His next step is to seek government compensation for his initial sentencing and subsequent imprisonment.
Guo Li. Photo: Courtesy of Guo Li
In 2008, amid a nationwide food safety scandal involving milk and infant formula, four batches of Scient baby formula were found to contain melamine, a high nitrogen compound which was illegally added to make formula test higher on protein level tests. Melamine can cause kidney stones, which led to the babies who suffered from an excessive intake of melamine being dubbed as "kidney stone babies" by the media.
By then, Guo had been feeding his 3-year-old daughter Scient baby formula for two years. According to advertisements for Scient formula, Scient was a US brand whose products were made with 100 percent imported milk. Seeing news that his daughter's baby formula brand numbered among those contaminated with melamine, Guo took his daughter to the hospital for an examination. An ultrasound exam revealed that she had multiple echogenic focuses in her kidneys which were suggestive of kidney stones.
"By then, she was already showing signs of anorexia, delayed growth and anxiety, and the exam confirmed our worries that something was wrong with her health," Guo told the Global Times.
Guo sought compensation from Scient's representative office in Beijing, but was told that he was not eligible for compensation as the baby formula his daughter consumed did not belong to one of the contaminated batches. Furious at this response, Guo sent the remaining cans of Scient baby formula his daughter had been eating to China's National Food Quality Supervision and Inspection Center for testing. Results showed that the melamine present in the formula was beyond legal levels. In one can produced in March 2008, the amount of melamine was 132 times legal levels.
Guo managed to use his connections as a conference interpreter in the US and his business knowledge to investigate Scient. He soon discovered that Scient was just a shell company registered in the US by the Guangdong-based dairy company Yashili and that it did not have the proper credentials to sell food in the US.
His daughter's health reports, the melamine test results and the supermarket receipts he collected as evidence gave Guo an obvious edge in his negotiations with Scient. On June 13, 2009, Guo signed a settlement deal with Scient. According to the deal, Scient would pay 400,000 yuan in compensation to Guo, while Guo promised that he "will give up his right to sue, and will abjure further compensation claims." Two days later, Scient issued a public apology for representing itself as a US brand.
Guo's successful defense of his rights was soon picked up by the media and was regarded as a triumph for consumers and victims of the tainted milk scandal. The compensation he received was far higher than the compensation plan set out by the government. According to the plan, dairy companies should offer 200,000 yuan to families whose children died, 30,000 yuan for children that suffered serious illness and just 2,000 yuan for less severe cases.
However, this was not the end of the story. On June 25, 2009, after a television program depicting Guo as a hero father aired, representatives from Scient reached out to Guo again, asking him if he had any other demands. After a few rounds of negotiations, Guo asked for 3 million yuan in further compensation.
"Scient offered to give me comprehensive compensation, so I calculated an amount based on the losses I suffered being absent from work to take care of my daughter, her insurance fees and subsidies and reached 3 million yuan," Guo said.
At midnight of July 23, 2009, Guo was arrested by Guangdong police while on a business trip in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province on charges of extortion and taken to Guangdong. This is when he realized that Scient was trying to set him up by reaching out to him the second time. Everything he had said during negotiations had been recorded by the company and was being used as evidence that he was trying to extort it, he said.
Guo said the trial went poorly for him.
A major blow came from a close source: Guo's wife. During the first trial, she wrote a statement addressed to the Yashili Group that her daughter was not suffering from any negative health conditions. This was used as evidence against him during the trial. She later divorced Guo while he was in prison.
Guo was found guilty. He submitted an appeal, but what followed was unusual for this type of case.
The appeal trial was held by the Chaozhou Intermediate People's Court in February 2010, just one month after the first trial. Guo's lawyer was not even present.
"After the first trial ruled against Guo and while I was preparing for an appeal, the court notified me that the court had already dismissed the appeal and had upheld the original verdict. I have never in my career encountered such a rushed second trial," Gongsun Xue, Guo's lawyer, told the Beijing News in an interview on April 10.
Guo had pled not guilty during both trials. Even after entering prison he continued to stand by his innocence. Guo said that in order to put pressure on him, the wardens barred other inmates from talking to him.
"Whenever someone spoke to me, he would be sent away the second day," he said. Guo also claimed that he was beaten and given little food and water. Because he never pled guilty, he was forced to serve his full five-year sentence.
"He's a fighter who seeks nothing but justice. Many people would have compromised, but Guo wouldn't do that, no matter the cost," one of Guo's former colleagues told 163.com in an interview on April 8.
In July 2014, Guo was released. Although his jail term had ended, his fight for justice had not. He began collecting evidence that his first trial had been wrongly handled.
Path to justice
Over the following three years, Guo visited Guangdong Province more than 10 times to look at his case file.
"It was like piecing together a puzzle. I found the recordings and spotted evidence that I had missed," he said.
He also met with other parents whose children had fallen ill after consuming tainted milk formula and sought their advice.
Although he has finally cleared his name, this final verdict is not the end of his story.
"The verdict looks like a conclusion to my activism, but it is just the beginning of another fight for my rights. After all, this misjudged case destroyed my family, my health and my job," he said. "I'm lucky to have survived, but I'm left with physical and psychological trauma that is hard to heal. I've done nothing wrong, but my family's broken."
Guo is currently getting by on his savings and subsidies from the China Disabled Persons' Federation. He is trying to limit his spending to 1,000 yuan a month.
Guo told the Global Times that his top priority is mending his family ties and repairing his relationship with his daughter, who's now 11 years old. His ex-wife has been keeping him away from his daughter.
"I know she is probably reading media coverage about me and searching for me online. I believe she knows what I have done for her and that I'm just a man seeking justice for his daughter, regardless of the cost," he said.
Guo said he will also seek compensation from Yashili. This may prove difficult, however, as Yashili International Holdings was acquired by Mengniu Dairy in 2013, and many of the company's former management has changed.
So far, neither Yashili or Mengniu Dairy has issued any comment on the issue.