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Notorious drug lord executed by China over 'Golden Triangle' smuggling, hijackings

China Daily / Reuters

Drug lord Naw Kham is taken from a Chinese jail to be executed on Friday.

BEIJING – A notorious gang leader and drug lord from Myanmar was among four foreigners executed in China Friday, marking the first time Beijing has extradited, tried and put to death foreign nationals. 

Naw Kham and three accomplices from Thailand and Laos were given a lethal injection in Yunnan’s provincial capital, Kunming, late Friday afternoon.

The four were found guilty last year and sentenced Wednesday for the October 2011 hijacking of two cargo ships and the murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River.

But Beijing’s decision to live broadcast the final moments of the men as they waited in their cells followed by their walk to waiting police cars to the execution facility has drawn criticism across China’s websphere.

The four were additionally found guilty of smuggling drugs, kidnapping and hijacking cargo ships in the “Golden Triangle,” a section of territory that overlaps parts of Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos that accounts for much of Asia’s opium and methamphetamines production.

Beijing contends that, while Naw Kham masterminded the hijacking of the two Chinese cargo ships, he also colluded with Thai soldiers who may have been responsible for the slaying of the sailors. 

Thai authorities are investigating nine of their soldiers alleged to be involved in the incident.

The capture of Naw Kham – who was at the center of the region's bustling drug trade – was a coup for Chinese police and anti-drug ministries, which reportedly spent a year tracking the infamous smuggler.

The search was unprecedented as it marked the first time that Chinese forces were seen actively searching for foreign national criminal suspects outside of China’s borders.

Task force
The importance Beijing placed on the search was underscored by a report last month by Chinese state media that revealed a task force set up to capture Naw Kham had at one point considered a controversial plan to use an unmanned drone to bomb a suspected hideout of Naw Kham’s gang in northeastern Myanmar.   

The scheme was scrapped after the order to capture Naw Kham alive and bring him to trial was reiterated from senior leaders.

Naw Kham’s capture and subsequent trial was given significant coverage in Chinese state media. In the run up to Friday’s execution, long reports detailing the gang’s crimes, celebrating the diligent work of China’s security forces and explaining the method of execution were repeatedly played on Chinese broadcaster CCTV.

CCTV also ran two hours of live coverage leading up to the executions, showing the men’s final moments as they were led from their prison cells to execution facility. Despite rampant rumors and speculation that the state broadcaster was planning on showing the execution live, it ended its live coverage after the men were driven away.  

The magnitude of Naw Kham’s capture and execution was never underplayed, with one CCTV reporter noting that officials there were comparing Naw Kham’s case to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

The comparison carries an undeniable message from the country’s ruling Communist Party to its people: China can and will look out for its nationals both at home and abroad.

But many in China found the live broadcast of the men’s final moments in poor taste and an uncomfortable reminder of show executions from China’s turbulent period during the Cultural Revolution.

“Even though they are deserved to die, these criminals have dignity too,” wrote one user on China’s Twitter-like service, Weibo, “The Cultural Revolution is back.”

“China is a country without humanity,” lamented another.

“CCTV is as cruel as these criminals,” one user bluntly noted. 

Mo Shaoping, a prominent criminal lawyer and advisor at the Central University of Finance and Economics Law School, argued that Beijing’s decision to broadcast the prisoners’ final moments was less about striking a nationalist chord and more about showing how the country has improved its handling of the death penalty – a sensitive topic for China’s leadership.

“China has made progress in how it deals with the death penalty,” Mo said. “showing everything live helps people see that prisoners are being treated humanely in their final moments.”

Indeed, much of the commentary on CCTV as cameras rolled on Naw Kham in his cell discussed how he had been given a full doctor’s inspection and that officers in the room had made small chat and offered cigarettes to the kingpin to help him relax.

They also noted that Naw had actually gained weight and looked healthier after months under Chinese supervision.

Mo also noted that the use of lethal injection mean that potential donor organs could not be harvested from the men, addressing another common criticism of China’s previous handling of state executions.

NBC News Le Li contributed to this report.