Seven Hong Kong people convicted of organising China's largest cross-border heroin trafficking operation escaped death sentences at a court in the western province of Yunnan yesterday. SAR residents Lam Yip-shing, Fong Che, Choi Pui-shing, Cheung Siu-pao, Wong Kin-keung, Choi Wai-shan and Kwok Wing-wah were found guilty with six mainlanders of trafficking 672.9kg of heroin from Myanmar into the mainland in November 2001. The drug was destined for sale in Hong Kong where it could have fetched more than $80 million on the streets. Lam, 40, the ringleader, was sentenced to life imprisonment, Choi Wai-shan to five years imprisonment and the other five Hong Kong people received 15-year jail terms, according to Qujing People's Intermediate Court. Legal experts last night expressed surprise at the 'exceptional' leniency of the sentences. Drug trafficking usually carries the death sentence on the mainland. In his written judgment delivered to the defendants in a detention centre, Judge Qi Qiaofang said Lam and his associates were treated softly because they were 'co-operative' and 'showed signs of remorse'. He said the convicts had 10 days to appeal. So far only mainlander Wang Xingchan, given life imprisonment, has done so. Lam and Wang were said to be the masterminds of an international drug syndicate that smuggled heroin manufactured in the Golden Triangle area straddling Myanmar, Thailand and Laos into Hong Kong via the mainland, according to the judgment. Wang handed the heroin divided into 651 blocks to Lam on November 5 last year. Lam arranged to have the drug hidden inside two hollow logs for shipment to Dangshui in Guangdong. The truck carrying the logs was intercepted by police near Luopin town in Yunnan on November 8. Officers inspecting the truck became suspicious when they found marks on the surface of the logs and arrested the mainland driver, the judgment read. Lam was arrested in a hotel room in Dangshui on November 12. Police found more than half a million Hong Kong dollars in cash, a piece of emerald and three mobile phones on him. Two days later, the police arrested another Hong Kong resident, Fong Che, 47, who came to meet Lam to buy drugs. The price for the heroin had been set by the gang at $120,000 per kilogram. Police later also arrested two other Hong Kong residents, Cheung and Kwok, who were employed to take the drugs across the border. Andrew Lam Ping-cheung, chairman of the Criminal Law and Procedures Committee of the Law Society of Hong Kong, said: 'The sentences are exceptionally lenient - normally in China drug trafficking of even minimal quantities [of drugs] carries capital punishment. 'We don't have evidence of corruption, but it may well be the case. There have been cases where offenders from a strong political background have been treated differently, although this case is unlikely to be political.' David Hodson, director of the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Criminology and former assistant commissioner (crime) of the Hong Kong Police, said: 'It sounds like they were very lucky. Certainly in both Hong Kong and China drug trafficking is considered a very serious offence. [More than] 600kg of heroin is a huge case.' He said the court would have taken the men's prior convictions for drug trafficking and illegal gambling into account, as these were a 'significant consideration'. Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, associate professor at City University's school of law and an expert in Chinese law, said the possibility of corruption could not be excluded, but cautioned against jumping to conclusions. 'The provincial court may have taken into consideration the Hong Kong people and been more careful in its sentencing.'