China’s state television broadcast live footage of police leading Naw Kham, Hsang Kham, Zha Xika and Yi Lai to their executions after being convicted in the 2011 killings of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River in Thailand.
One by one, the men were bundled with rope and led the deaths, followed by a gaggle of photographers snapping images. A debate raged online Friday over whether China Central Television should have broadcast the images.
The live coverage of the men preparing to be executed, while extremely unusual, was a reminder of Chinese law in decades past when public executions were relatively commonplace.
The gang was accused of ambushing two flat-bottomed Chinese cargo ships on the upper reaches of the Mekong River on Oct. 5, 2011, in Myanmar waters infested with gangs that make their living from protection rackets and 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 Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, and provides a vital trade and transportation route between south-western China and Southeast Asia.
The ships were recovered downriver later that day 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 fished from the river over the following days. 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 special investigation group and working with Thai, Lao, and Myanmar authorities to gather evidence and track down the perpetrators. Naw Kham was arrested in Laos last April and turned over to China the following month along with the other defendants. Because the killings took place on board Chinese-flagged vessels, Beijing, whose massive economy and powerful military give it considerable sway over its smaller southern neighbours, ruled the trials should take place in China.
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.
Thai deputy national police Chief Gen. Pansiri Prapawat said Friday that police are pressing charges of murder and concealing bodies against the soldiers. He said police have also issued an arrest warrant for a Thai man who is believed to have acted as a liaison between Naw Kham and the police officers.
“I insist that the police are working on these cases quickly and thoroughly, since they have an effect on international relations,” he said.
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. That’s led to an expansion of Chinese police powers into the neighbouring region and a big boost in Chinese influence,” said Jin Canrong, associate dean of Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing.
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