China has threatened to execute or jail for life anyone who breaks SARS quarantine orders and spreads the deadly virus intentionally.
The Supreme Court and the top prosecutor laid down the punishments in an interpretation of laws on hindering the prevention or treatment of sudden disease outbreaks and other disasters, newspapers said yesterday.
"Intentionally spreading sudden contagious disease pathogens, endangering public security or serious personal injury, death or heavy loss of public or private property will be punishable by from 10 years to life in prison or the death penalty," the official Xinhua news agency said.
The new rule came under immediate fire from rights activists.
"The measure is too extreme and the punishment too heavy," Hong Kong-based rights activist Frank Lu said by telephone.
"It violates the international human rights covenant and was not approved by the National People's Congress," Lu said, referring to China's parliament.
The interpretation is part of a government war on SARS after a slow start in handling the flu-like disease which first appeared in the southern province of Guangdong last year.
Several reports have surfaced in China, which has the worst outbreak of SARS in the world, of people busting out of quarantine or refusing medical care for fear of the disease.
In the Inner Mongolian city of Linhe, Li Song, a 40-year-old doctor infected with SARS, broke quarantine and smashed medical equipment last month after his wife and parents died from disease, the official Web site www.people.com.cn said.
Li became infected with SARS during an internship at a Beijing hospital and passed it on to 28 people, including his wife and parents, a local official said.
People with contagious diseases, or suspected of having them, who refuse medical examinations, isolation or treatment and pass on the illness unintentionally can get three to seven years in jail, the interpretation said.
Health officials found guilty of negligence and allowing a disease to spread can be imprisoned for up to three years, it said.
Hundreds of officials, including the health minister and Bei-jing mayor, have been fired for mishandling or covering up the disease.
Those found guilty of producing and selling fake drugs may be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison if their actions result in heavy losses, the report said. If they kill someone or cause serious physical damage, it is 10 years to life.
Using violence or threats to prevent state or Red Cross workers from doing disease and disaster prevention could result in up to a three-year sentence.
State-owned companies or state employees who handle outbreaks or disasters irresponsibly, or misuse their powers, leading to heavy losses or bankruptcy are liable to serve up to three years in prison, it said.
Other crimes, like taking advantage of an outbreak to raise prices of goods, misusing aid funds, illegally administering medical care, false advertising, raising false alarms and fabricating news of attacks, can also result in prison terms.