International human rights groups and health experts yesterday criticized new laws which allow China to execute or imprison for life anyone who violates SARS quarantine and spreads the disease.
"It will be useless in fighting SARS," said Frank Lu, director of the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democracy in China.
"They didn't even go through debate in the National People's Congress to pass this law. This shows China is not a country ruled by law."
Health experts agreed the law was unnecessary.
"I think you can have a lot of impact without having to impose harsh punishment, such as prison sentences or execution," said a Beijing-based international health official, who declined to be identified.
"It's not an effective deterrent measure," the official said.
On the contrary, experts said, it could bring negative consequences.
People who for whatever reason had stayed away from hospitals or quarantine areas could be less willing to turn themselves in for fear of facing penalties, they said.
"We're concerned it will discourage people from coming forward about the disease," said the World Health Organization's spokes-man in Beijing, Bob Dietz.
Chinese citizens who are suspected of having the disease and those who have come in contact with infected people or people who come from infected areas have been sought by police and other authorities for quarantine.
Many people are afraid of being put in quarantine centers or hospitals for fear of being lumped with SARS patients and catching the disease.
Authorities admitted this week that many infections occurred in hospitals in Beijing due to lack of preparedness and inadequate facilities, turning them into breeding grounds for the disease.
SARS has hit China the hardest of all countries in the world, claiming 271 lives and infecting 5,163 people.
Dietz and others said, however, they doubted China would actually carry out its threat.
State media reported the harsh penalties according to an interpretation of the law, which took effect Thursday, issued by the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate.
"Intentionally spreading sudden contagious disease pathogens that endangers public security or leads to serious personal injury, death or heavy loss of public or private property will be punishable by 10 years to life imprisonment or the death penalty," Xinhua news agency said of the ruling.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International said in a report last month that two-thirds of the more than 1,500 people executed around the world last year were put to death in China.