China has executed four foreigners for killing 13 Chinese sailors in an attack on the Mekong River, following a live nationwide broadcast showing them being led to their deaths.
The attack on the sailors 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 south-western Yunnan province's capital of Kunming 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 gang was accused of ambushing two flat-bottomed Chinese cargo ships on the upper reaches of the Mekong River on October 5, 2011, in Burmese waters infested with gangs that make their living from protection rackets and the production and smuggling of heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs.
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.
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.