Four men, including notorious Myanmese militia ringleader and drug lord Naw Kham, were sentenced to death yesterday for murdering 13 Chinese sailors aboard two cargo ships on the Mekong River in Thailand.
The verdict was handed down by the Intermediate People's Court of Kunming, in Yunnan province.
Another man received a suspended death sentence and a sixth man was jailed for eight years. The men were from Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, and one was without nationality.
All six pleaded guilty last month to charges including intentional homicide, drug trafficking, kidnapping and hijacking.
The court found they masterminded and colluded with Thai soldiers in the attack on two ships - the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8 - on October 5 last year.
They were also fined a total of 6 million yuan (HK$7.38 million).
Naw Kham, 44, was a drug trafficker in the Golden Triangle, an illicit opium-producing region in Southeast Asia spanning areas in four countries.
Prosecutors said he instructed his subordinates to plant more than 80kg of drugs on the ships, and the plan was to team up with Thai soldiers to frame the crew as drug traffickers. All six lodged appeals against their sentences.
Li Chunguang , a Kunming-based lawyer who was at the hearing, said that after the defendants announced their intention to appeal, Naw Kham said he would pay the fine, which will go to the victims' families.
"My impression is that [Naw Kham] still hopes to live," Li said, referring to the chances of him receiving a reduced sentence. "Otherwise, he would not have offered up the money so quickly." The case is notable because it was the first time China has tried an overseas suspect for crimes committed outside the country.
Naw Kham was extradited from Laos at the request of mainland authorities in May.
Li said this resulted in the court taking unprecedented measures to make the trial appear fair and thorough.
But Li said there were still questionable elements in the case. "The most puzzling detail was the discovery of more than 80kg of narcotics on the boats," Li said. "Such an amount of drugs is worth millions of yuan.
"Why would Naw Kham have been so willing to spare such a vast amount of money just to frame the crew?"