China has imposed heavy prison sentences on nine people accused of selling abducted children to six orphanages where foreigners often adopt babies.
The jail sentences are the latest development in a growing scandal over corruption in some elements of China's orphanage system, which has become the top source of overseas adoptions by Canadian parents.
Prison sentences of up to 15 years were imposed on those convicted of selling babies in Hunan province in southern China. In addition, the former head of one orphanage, the Hengdong Social Welfare Home, was sentenced to one year in prison for buying babies, and 23 local officials were sacked and punished for negligence or involvement in the baby-trafficking scandal.
The ring was uncovered last November when an orphanage director was spotted buying three infant girls from human traffickers at a crowded railway station in the town of Hengyang, according to a report this weekend by the Xinhua news agency.
The police investigation discovered that the six orphanages had been buying babies since 2002 and had purchased 78 abducted children in 2005 alone. The traffickers bought infants from Guangdong province and sold them to the orphanages for the equivalent of $460 to $615 each, Xinhua said.
"The social welfare homes knowingly bought the abducted children and forged orphan certificates for them, enabling foreigners and Chinese people, who made considerable donations, to adopt them," the agency said.
Foreigners made donations of up to $3,500 each to adopt children from the six orphanages. Chinese authorities are still trying to track down the sold babies, Xinhua said.
"The suspects said they were doing good work to save the abducted children from death," Police Chief Lei Dongsheng told the news agency. "However, we found that they paid more to buy children when there was a demand. They are selling babies for money."
China is by far the biggest source of foreign children adopted by Canadians. In 2004, Canadians adopted 1,001 children from China -- more than half of all international adoptions in Canada that year. Hunan is one of the provinces where Canadians have adopted children.
Chinese authorities have refused to provide details on the extent of the baby-trafficking scandal, leaving some Canadian parents worried that their children could have been involved in the ring. The Adoption Council of Canada has also expressed concern about the case. But the council and most Canadian adoption agencies have said they are confident that corruption is not a widespread problem in most of the orphanages where Canadians adopt children.
Despite the prison sentences, some of the convicted traffickers have supporters in China. One supporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 15-year jail sentence imposed on Liang Guihong, a farmer in Guangdong province, was an injustice.
"She began collecting abandoned babies 14 years ago," the supporter said. "She has collected hundreds of babies, some of whom even have mental illnesses. She is famous for her kindness among the local people. How could she afford to raise so many children?"
Over the course of 14 years, Ms. Liang received less than $8,500 from the orphanages for "delivery costs and bonuses," the supporter said.
"This is far less than what she spent on the babies. There isn't any law or regulation forbidding the welfare homes from giving money to anyone who collects and sends abandoned babies. These kind people need money to take care of the babies and deliver them to the orphanages."