China has executed four foreigners for killing 13 Chinese sailors in an attack on the Mek-ong River, following a live nationwide broadcast showing them being led to their deaths.
The attack highlighted drug smuggling and extortion rackets along the vital waterway and led to a major expansion of Chinese police powers in the region.
Accused ringleader Naw Kham and accomplices Hsang Kham, Yi Lai and Zha Xiha were found guilty of the killings. The four are of Burmese, Thai, Laotian, and unknown nationality.
In the unusual live broadcast, state-run CCTV showed the four being led in shackles and handcuffs from their cells at a jail in Kunming, the capital of south-western Yunnan province, before their execution by lethal injection.
Their deaths were announced two hours later by the Yunnan provincial police department.
China has mostly abandoned the once-common practice of parading condemned criminals before crowds in stadiums and through city streets on the way to execution grounds on the edge of cities.
The broadcast was a response to widespread Chinese outrage over the killings, as well as an attempt to emphasise the heinousness of the crime and the efficiency of China’s police and courts in doling out justice, said Prof Yu Guoming of Renmin University’s School of Mass Media.
“The brutality of Naw Kham in the killing really got ordinary Chinese people riled up. It’s no wonder that it has attracted such huge attention from the public,” Mr Yu said.
The gang was accused of ambushing two Chinese cargo ships on the upper reaches of the Mekong River in 2011 in Burma.
The waters are infested with gangs that make their living from the production and smuggling of heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs.
The Mekong flows south from Yunnan through the infamous Golden Triangle region, where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet, and provides a vital trade and transportation route between south-western China and South-east Asia.
The ships were recovered downriver by Thai police following a gun battle with gang members, and the bodies of the 13 victims, some bound by the hands before being stabbed and shot, were recovered. Methamphetamine was found on the boats, leading to speculation they had been hijacked as part of a drug-smuggling plot.
However, gang members later testified the killings were in retaliation for the ships refusing to pay protection money and allowing themselves to be used by Thai and Laotian soldiers in attacks on warlord bases.
They said the drugs were placed on board to make it look like there had been a struggle between smugglers.
China’s public security ministry made the case a top priority, forming a 200-officer investigation group and working with Thai, Lao and Burma authorities.
The four were sentenced to death in November in a two-day trial, and the judgment was upheld by China’s Supreme People’s Court in Beijing following an automatic appeal in accordance with Chinese law.
In their testimony, the four said they had conspired with renegade Thai soldiers, nine of whom were arrested in October 2011 in Thailand and charged with taking part in the killings. They have yet to be tried or extradited and remain in Thai army custody.
Months after the killings, China established a multinational river patrol headquartered in Yunnan which Beijing says has been effective in clamping down on such incidents.
“The case set a precedent that China would vigorously pursue criminals who commit crimes against its nationals,” said Jin Canrong, associate dean of Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing.