In the first-ever instance of conviction for drug adulteration in the country, a court yesterday awarded 10 years' rigorous imprisonment to an owner and two officials of Adflame Pharmaceuticals.
Adflame director Helena Pasha; Mizanur Rahman, manager and her brother, and Nrigendra Nath Bala, production officer, were also fined Tk 2,00,000 each under the Drug (Control) Ordinance, 1982.
Adflame's Paracetamol syrup Flammadol containing toxic chemical diethylene glycol was responsible for the deaths of a number of children between 1982 and 1992.
The case statement brought charges of killing 76 kids.
“The accused have committed a heinous crime against the society, children and humanity as well,” said the Dhaka Drug Court's judge, Abdur Rashid, in his verdict.
They deserved the highest punishment, he added. “For that reason, they have been handed down the maximum sentence [under the ordinance].”
One victim's elder brother, Mohiuddin, told The Daily Star, “We are happy that the culprits are getting punishment at last.”
“However, we would have been happier had they received death penalty.”
His brother Masud was among 15/20 children who had died after being given the Paracetamol syrup distributed at the health facility set up for employees at the Bangabhaban.
On July 17, as the date for delivering the verdict was announced, Abdur Rashid said the drug ordinance did not provide for a tougher sentence.
Public Prosecutor Shaheen Ahmed Khan then pointed out that the accused should have been charged with murder. But this too is not allowed by the law.
Still, the judgment is believed to have a significant impact on drug adulteration trials, particularly the two stayed since 1994 following a High Court order.
The Adflame trial proceedings, which had remained halted for 16 years, resumed in 2009 after The Daily Star ran a report exposing how corruption and manipulation had been delaying the trial.
The Adflame case was apparently the strongest among the four filed by the Directorate of Drug Administration (DDA) in December 1992. The samples of Flammadol were collected by Dhaka Shishu Hospital and sent for test earlier that year.
The government-supervised test, assisted by a World Health Organisation consultant, found 10 to 20 percent diethylene glycol in the samples of Paracetamol brands produced by five companies. The producers used the cheap industrial toxic replacing diluents Propylene Glycol.
Owners and high-ups of four companies were sued after the test result came. All cases were stayed in 1994 with most of the accused securing bail.
Many accused, including those released on bail, later absconded. Helena's eldest son Afzar Pasha, who was tried in absentia in the Adflame case, had gone to Canada sometime after 2000.
Another accused, Anwar Pasha, Helena's husband, passed away.
Afzar and Md Noman, an accused who was also tried in absentia, were acquitted by the drug court as the case statement did not mention how they were involved.
City Chemical & Pharmaceutical Works Ltd, one of the five companies, was not even sued apparently for one of its directors having connection with the then BNP government.
One of the cases was filed in Mymensingh as the sample of syrup produced by Rex Pharma was collected by DDA officer Tomas AK Biswas from the area. The accused got acquitted in 2003.
According to a survey by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, as many as 2,700 children died due to renal failure after taking toxic syrup from 1982 to 1992.
At the court yesterday, Helena, 75, and Mizanur, 68, sat side by side, apparently relaxed, as they waited for the verdict from 11:00am.
They were called to the dock around 12:30pm and the judge started reading out the verdict.
Talking to The Daily Star, victims' families expressed concern that the culprits might take advantage of the remaining lengthy legal process.
Even PP Shaheen could not reply directly, when asked how long it might take for the case to pass through all the phases.
“The accused might seek bail and thus delay the process,” he said. “I cannot make any guess.”
Defence counsel Khondker Bashir Ahmed, however, said his clients would appeal to the HC anytime soon.