The boss of a pharmacy chain in Beijing has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for selling counterfeit face masks at the height of China’s coronavirus epidemic.

Li Dong, chairman of Beijing Jinghai Kangbaixin Medicine Co, and two of his associates were found guilty by a court in the city’s Chaoyang district on Friday, local newspaper The Economic Observer reported.

Li’s associates were identified as Li Yuzhang and Luo Hanyi. The report did not specify what sentences they were given, but said all three planned to appeal the court’s ruling.

The case dates back to January when Li bought and then sold through his chain of stores more than 580,000 fake masks advertised as being made by 3M. Demand for masks was soaring at the time as the coronavirus spread across the country.

However, after receiving complaints about the quality of the products, local authorities began an investigation, which ended with Li and his associates being arrested on February 1.

On February 25, they were charged with selling counterfeit and substandard goods by prosecutors in Chaoyang.

Kangbaixin issued a statement three days later apologising for Li’s behaviour and offering compensation – of three times the value of their purchases – to anyone who had bought the masks between January 23-26.

The court said that the company made 4.3 million yuan (US$608,000) from the sale of the fake goods,

The defendants said at a hearing in late March they believed the products to be genuine and had been tricked into buying them by a supplier who provided them with fake quality certificates, according to a report by Shanghai-based news website

This is not the first time Kangbaixin, which operates more than 60 stores in Beijing, has been punished for a mask-related offence.

In January, the company was fined 100,000 yuan by authorities in the city’s Dongcheng district for profiteering from the sale of PM2.5 masks, after selling them at a 260 per cent mark-up from the purchase price.

As Covid-19 began to spread around the world, China ramped up its efforts to crack down on companies manufacturing or selling counterfeit masks, as well as those who sought to profiteer from their sale. On February 10, the Supreme People’s Court issued a new rule making it a criminal offence to do so.

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