Four men were executed by lethal injection on the mainland yesterday for the murder of 13 Chinese sailors, with their final moments as they headed to the death chamber broadcast live on state television.
The men - one Myanmese, one Thai, one Lao and one stateless - carried out the killings on the Mekong River in 2011.
China Central Television (CCTV) announced early yesterday it would broadcast live throughout the executions.
It showed the men being taken from their cells to vehicles at the entrance of the detention centre, but did not carry footage from inside the death chamber in its two-hour live show.
Former Myanmese drug lord Naw Kham and three accomplices were executed in Kunming , capital of Yunnan province. Their appeals were rejected last month.
CCTV showed Naw Kham taken from his cell by two armed police officers and led through a pack of reporters at 2.01pm.
Warders guarded him and prepared him for the execution site. They lashed his arms tight to his sides and placed shackles on his feet. He had a relaxed, neutral expression on his face and hardly seemed to notice what was happening.
He even smiled when a warder read the announcement confirming his execution.
Condemned prisoners were commonly paraded in public before being taken to an open execution ground to be shot by firing squads on the mainland 30 years ago.
But executions are now generally open only to a few select witnesses. Yesterday is believed to be the first time in recent years that live footage of condemned criminals being taken to their execution has been broadcast.
Prominent rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said CCTV's live coverage was both unethical and against the spirit of the law.
"Using two hours to broadcast live the process for these criminals facing the death penalty is in effect a kind of parading [the condemned]," Liu wrote on his microblog.
Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, called the live broadcast "an affront to human dignity" and said retribution was not a principle of criminal law. "There is no reason to turn an execution into this grotesque show and it actually detracts from the effective dispensation of justice ... no matter what they have done, they are not animals in a zoo," he said.
But some internet users approved of the execution show.
"It saved its toughest words for China, warning against any illegal activity that might infringe on waters around the country," read one post on the Sina Weibo microblogging service.
The gang was arrested last year in a joint operation by police from China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, CCTV reported.
It added that the gang colluded with Thai soldiers in the attack on two cargo ships, the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8.
In November, they were found guilty of intentional homicide, drug trafficking, kidnapping and hijacking.
Two other members of the gang were also convicted, with one receiving a suspended death sentence and the other being jailed for eight years.
Additional reporting by Verna Yu