China executes four foreign nationals convicted of Mekong river murders

State TV live broadcasts men being led to death chamber after being found guilty of killing 12 Chinese sailors in Thailand

China has executed four foreign prisoners for murdering a crew of Chinese sailors on the Mekong river after a live television broadcast showed them being lead to their death.

Naw Kham, the Burmese head of a drug gang, and three of his alleged henchmen – Hsang Kham, from Thailand; Zha Xika, from Laos; and Yi Lai, whom Chinese state media referred to as "stateless" – were executed by lethal injection in Kunming, southern China, the official Xinhua newswire reported.

The men were convicted of murdering 12 Chinese sailors in northern Thailand near the Golden Triangle, a lawless area bordering Burma and Laos, in October 2011.

Thai authorities were the first to discover the bodies on two Chinese cargo ships, some of whom had apparently been blindfolded, gagged with duct tape, and shot in the head at close range. Nearly 1m methamphetamine pills were found on board. One sailor was missing.

Chinese state television aired a two-hour live broadcast before the executions, which showed the four prisoners as they were tied up by police officers and bundled into the back of a van.

The broadcast juxtaposed images from the prisoners' trials with displays of Chinese judicial force – armed patrol boats on the Mekong, rows of Swat officers and border guards, and interviews with Chinese analysts on the country's rule of law.

"I think [the broadcast] is compatible with what the government wants – to show the Chinese people that the government is serious about protecting them within the country and outside," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

The prisoners were sentenced to death last autumn, but a local court in Kunming did not announce the date of the executions until Wednesday.

The court said that it would hand over the prisoners' remains to their relatives and relevant consulates, state media reported.


Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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