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Canada's tainted-blood tragedy has caused untold heartache, thousands of deaths, billions of dollars in lawsuits, an unprecedented public inquiry and much political hand-wringing.

Yesterday, some of the actions and inactions at its heart became the subject of criminal charges.

The RCMP opened a new chapter in the decades-old saga, laying a total of 32 charges against four individuals, a pharmaceutical company and one of the country's most beloved charities.

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Those charged include two senior bureaucrats at Health Canada and the head of the blood program at the Canadian Red Cross Society, in addition to the humanitarian agency itself. Armour Pharmaceutical Co. and one of its vice-presidents were also charged.

The charges include criminal negligence causing bodily harm, for which the maximum penalty is 10 years in prison, and common nuisance by endangering the public, punishable by up to two years in prison. There was also one charge of violating the Food and Drug Act, which is punishable by a fine.

"The Canadian public needs to have confidence in their public institutions," said Superintendent Rod Knecht, head of the RCMP blood task force. "The Canadian public has the right to expect the safest blood and the safest blood products possible."

The scandal dates back to the 1980s, when contaminated blood and blood products infected thousands of patients with HIV and hepatitis.

The Canadian Red Cross didn't start testing for the human immunodeficiency virus until eight months after a test was on the market. It did not start screening for hepatitis C until four years after an indirect test for the virus became available.

Mr. Justice Horace Krever headed a federal commission of inquiry into the blood system. His report, released in November of 1997, was critical of every major player, from the Red Cross to the federal and provincial governments, but he had no authority to apportion criminal blame.

In December of 1997, the RCMP launched their own investigation to determine whether criminal charges were warranted. The investigation took five years, employing 15 full-time investigators and four Crown attorneys.

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"There has never been an investigation like this one," Supt. Knecht said in an interview. "The volume of documentation, the complexity of the issues, the multijurisdictional aspects and the fact that the events were historical in nature, dating back up to 20 years -- all that together is unprecedented."

The victims of tainted blood -- including almost 2,000 who contracted HIV-AIDS and an estimated 20,000 more who contracted hepatitis C -- and their lawyers were elated by the criminal charges, but felt they were only a matter of time.

"We are satisfied that justice has followed its course," David Page of the Canadian Hemophilia Society said. "They knew the system was inadequate, and they chose not to act, so it's normal that they be held accountable."

Michael McCarthy, an Ontario hemophiliac who contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood, said it is about time that people and institutions were called to account.

"We can't blame God for what happened here.

"It was real people who made decisions, based on probably financial aspects of the blood system where they didn't want to spend money to protect people of this country from potentially lethal blood."

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Mr. McCarthy said that while he was pleased with the charges, he believes that federal and provincial politicians, who were ultimately responsible for the blood system, should also face criminal charges.

The RCMP would say only that the investigation will continue, and other charges may be laid.

Those charged will appear in court in two groups, in Hamilton on Dec. 10 and in Toronto Dec. 11.

The people and institutions charged include John Furesz, former director of the Bureau of Biologics at Health Canada; Wark Boucher, former chief of the blood products division of the Bureau of Biologics; Roger Perrault, former director of the Canadian Red Cross Society's blood-transfusion service; the Canadian Red Cross Society, through its former blood transfusion and blood donor recruitment services; Armour Pharmaceutical Co., based in Bridgewater, N.J., and Michael Rodell, former vice-president of scientific and regulatory affairs at Armour.

All the charges relate to the distribution of an Armour product called Factorate at a time when the tainted-blood problem was supposed to have been resolved.

The product, used by hemophiliacs to help their blood clot, was heat-treated to kill the AIDS virus, but the process was inadequate.

In mid-1986, the Canadian Hemophilia Society demanded that the product be withdrawn from distribution in Canada. The Bureau of Biologics and the Red Cross refused. In 1987, at least seven children who were free of the virus were infected by the "safe" product. Evidence presented at the Krever inquiry suggested that Armour knew that its heat-treatment process was inadequate, but distributed the product anyhow.

In the charges filed yesterday by the RCMP it is alleged that three individuals contracted HIV as a result of taking the product and of the failure of government regulators and Red Cross officials to block its distribution.

The RCMP laid 17 charges of common nuisance by endangering the public.

These charges relate not to the infection of specific individuals but to placing the public at risk by failing to warn them of potential dangers.

Among the allegations is that the Red Cross and its officials failed to take adequate measures to screen out individuals who were infected with HIV-AIDS to prevent them from giving blood.

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