Japan: Convictions In Blood Scandal

Three former drug company executives accused of selling blood products tainted with the virus that causes AIDS were convicted Thursday and given brief prison terms.

The convictions were the first in a wide-ranging tainted blood scandal that shook Japan's powerful bureaucracy and pharmaceutical industry in the 1980s. About 1,800 hemophiliacs were infected, and an estimated 500 have died.

The three were top executives of the company at the center of the scandal, Green Cross Corp. They were tried over the AIDS-related death of a liver patient.

Renzo Matsushita, 79, Tadakazu Suyama, 72, and Takehiko Kawano, 69, were accused of permitting the sale of unheated blood-clotting agents known to carry the risk of infection with HIV.

All three pleaded guilty in 1997. Matsushita -- a former Health and Welfare Ministry official -- was given a two-year prison term, Suyama received 18 months and Kawano 16 months, said Osaka District Court spokesman Mikinori Kobayashi.

Some critics were disappointed at the short prison terms.

Ryuhei Kawada, a hemophiliac infected with HIV from tainted blood products and one of the plaintiffs in a civil suit against Green Cross, said the punishment was insufficient. "I cannot but feel anger," he told reporters.

The scandal triggered public outrage against the drug industry and government officials charged with regulating it, and resulted in the prosecution of a former bureaucrat and an adviser to the government on AIDS policy. No decisions have been reached in those cases.

The scandal centered on the company's failure to heat-treat imported blood products despite the widespread knowledge at the time that untreated blood could transmit HIV.

By 1985, the government already had approved safe, heat-treated coagulants, but Green Cross continued to sell its supplies because it faced losing money by dumping its inventory of untreated products.

The three defendants approved the sale of unsterilized blood products in March 1985 and did not recall the products even after the company began selling heated agents in January 1986.

At the time of the sales in question, Matsushita was president of the company, Suyama was vice president and Kawano was chief of the company's drug production.

"We take the ruling seriously, and we will do our utmost not to cause damage by drug products again," Kyodo News agency quoted the company as saying in a statement.

Green Cross has paid a total of $216 million in compensation to victims and bereaved families after legal battles and subsequent court-mediated settlements.

Hundreds of hemophiliacs filed damage suits against the company, five pharmaceutical companies and the government for their infection with HIV via tainted blood products.

Written by Kozo Mizoguchi
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