Broadcast of Mekong Pirate’s Execution May Have Violated Chinese Law

You likely have heard about the execution of Naw Kham, the Mekong Pirate found guilty of killing 13 Chinese in the Golden Triangle. See our prior coverage here. The moments leading up to the execution were televised live in China, although the execution itself was not. Siweiluozi’s Blog points out this violates the spirit if not the letter of Chinese law meant to curb such public executions.

This prohibition was subsequently written into China’s Criminal Procedure Law, and the relevant Supreme People’s Court interpretation on implementation of the death penalty also prohibits “other acts that degrade the personality of criminals” (其他有辱罪犯人格的行为).

Siweiluozi’s Blog also points to a commentary in the Changjiang Daily, the official “organ” of the party in Wuhan, providing the following critique:

Perhaps it is not illegal in China to broadcast live as the condemned are transferred to the execution ground, but I still oppose broadcasting live. Before, China used to have so-called public sentencing rallies and parade bound criminals in the streets for public viewing. Now, live broadcast of the transfer is no different in any real sense and is even more repulsive. Why?
It is because the live broadcast voluntarily and consciously revived these kinds of backward, barbaric scenes lacking in any modern notion of rights or rule of law. The live broadcast even delivered these scenes right in front of your eyes, so that you didn’t even need to go out of doors or be in the streets: you could see the barbarity and backwardness from your own home. You could say, in other words, that this live broadcast was itself barbaric and backwards, displaying no progress at all.
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Chinese Drones and Mekong Piracy

Naw Kham (first from right) and members of his gang hear the verdict of the first trial at the Kunming Intermediate People’s Court in Yunnan Province on November 6, 2012. Photo: CFP

There have been some interesting revelations in the case of Naw Kham, the so-called Mekong Pirate who presided over a transnational criminal network in the Golden Triangle of the Mekong river basin. (prior coverage here). Although Naw Kham was convicted of murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and hijacking across international borders, this does not constitute piracy under UNCLOS as it did not occur on the high seas. Nonetheless, the case provides a fascinating case study in transnational organized crime and has important analogies to piracy on the high seas. Chinese media have focused on the operation to capture Naw Kham, whereas Western media have focused on the fact that China considered using an unmanned drone to kill him.

First the Chinese government-published Global Times provides details on how Naw Kham avoided capture by the Chinese in the Golden Triangle for so long.

During the search, Naw Kham vanished at least three times just as the Chinese police were closing in. [Taskforce leader] Liu said that this was largely because the Chinese police were limited in what they could do overseas. They had to launch appeals before undertaking operations and cooperate with local police.

But Naw Kham had lived in the Golden Triangle for many years and sometimes locals would aid him.

At the end of 2011, Chinese police located Naw Kham at a village by the Mekong River in Boqiao Province in Laos, the hometown of one of Naw Kham’s mistresses.

Chinese and local police encircled the village, but some local officials and villagers obstructed them. “We hit a stalemate. Police were not allowed to enter the village. Even though the local police head was with us, provincial officials were on the other side,” Liu said.

“The deadlock lasted hours, and it was getting dark. According to local customs, the search would have to be suspended after sunset.”

Liu finally found a senior military officer to help break the deadlock; however, police were only able to search six houses in the village and arrest the mistress and some gang members, seizing guns and cash. At night, Naw Kham crossed into Myanmar with the help of locals.

This highlights the fact that transnational criminality, and piracy in particular, will thrive where three conditions coexist: (1) lack of naval/police enforcement; (2) existence of water-borne commerce of significant value; and (3) poverty – motivating foot-soldiers to take extraordinary risks. In this case, the geography and multiple borders provided cross-jurisdictional cover for Naw Kham. Without strong international cooperation, he would not have been captured.

China’s unmanned Yi Long drone on display at the airshow in Zhuhai

In contrast, the New York Times have seized on the mention in the Global Times article that China had considered using an unarmed drone to kill Naw Kham.

Dennis M. Gormley, an expert on unmanned aircraft at the University of Pittsburgh, said of the reported Chinese deliberations, “Separating fact from fiction here is difficult.” But he added, “Given the gruesome nature of the 2011 killings  [for which Naw Kham was convicted] and the Chinese public’s outcry for action, it’s not at all surprising to imagine China employing an armed drone over Myanmar’s territory.”

Mr. Gormley said the decision not to carry out a drone strike might reflect a lack of confidence in untested Chinese craft, control systems or drone pilots. “I think China’s still not ready for prime time using armed drones, but they surely will be with a few more years of determined practice,” he said. “And they surely will have America’s armed drone practice as a convenient cover for legitimating their own practice.”

Similarly, the United States had considered using unmanned drones against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, but that program suffered setbacks and U.S. drones were likely only used to surveil pirate-operations off the coast of Somalia. Ultimately, China decided not to use its new assets. Indeed, capturing Naw Kham with no reported casualties and without the need to launch a military strike in Thailand, Laos, or Myanmar was a much cleaner solution.

Update: Mekong Pirates Sentenced to Death

Further to his earlier conviction for the murder of 13 chinese sailors on the Mekong River last year, notorious former druglord Naw Kham has been sentenced to death today by the Intermediate People’s Court of Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province. We blogged on the Mekong River murders here. The incident was one of the deadliest assaults on Chinese nationals overseas and prompted unprecedented joint boat patrols along the river.

Naw Kham Upon His Transfer from Laos to China for Trial in May this Year – Asian Correspondent

Three of Naw Kham’s gang members were also sentenced to death, another received a  suspended death sentence while one was sentenced to eight years in prison, respectively. They had all pleaded guilty on a 3-day long trial in September this year. We previously blogged about the Mekong Trial here. The defendants were also ordered  to pay compensations to the victims families. They all said they will appeal the verdict.

 

The Mekong Pirates on Trial

For 3 days at the end of last week, the Intermediate People’s Court in Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan Province in southwest China, was the stage for yet another high profile, yet swift, criminal trial. The case involved the mysterious murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the Golden Triangle’s area of the Mekong River in October last year. We have blogged about the incident here, focusing in particular on China’s unprecedented role in strengthening law enforcement in the strategic Mekong River basin. Since the murders, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and even Thailand joined China in holding several military patrols across the lawless boundary waters.

The Mekong River Trial in Session at the Intermediary People’s Court in Kunming

The murders, one the deadliest assault on Chinese nationals oversea, sparked a large public outcry in China. It therefore comes as little surprise that the trial attracted much attention from the Chinese press. Among the 6 defendants was Naw Kham (aka Nor Kham aka Jai Norkham),a member of Myanmar’s Shan ethnic minority and a notorious once-untouchable drug lord and gang leader who for years is thought to have ruthlessly run the drug and other illicit trade in the Golden Triangle area. Naw Kham was arrested in April in Laos in another joint military sting operation and traded over to China shortly thereafter. Prior to his arrest, only two blurred pictures of Naw Kham were said to exist.

Naw Kham is Extradited to Beijing amid Tight Security – Xinhua

Much of the news regarding the investigation and trial is limited to Chinese media, with only a few outlets providing reporting in the English language. The holding of the trial has been hailed as another example, further to the joint river patrols, of China’s growing concern over cross-border security issues and its novel policy of regional cooperation in combating international crimes. Indeed, it is unlikely that the arrest and trial of the alleged perpetrators could have taken place in such a swift manner without China’s involvement. As discussed in another previous post, most notably this policy included China’s unprecedented participation in the international anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia and in the larger Gulf of Aden area. Chinese media praised the trial as a model of judicial cooperation, coupling armed drug trafficking gangs on the Mekong and Somali pirates as “common enemies of mankind” and calling for their prosecution as a duty of all States. This is a remarkable development in the debate over the universal nature of piracy prosecution but also, leaving piracy aside, in the more controversial debate over modern China’s sovereignty and its role in large-scale international cooperation. However, China’s sudden primary stance in the Mekong murders also seems to be a show of strength in view of other disputes concerning the economic development in the Mekong River basin as well as in other areas of economic interest in Asia.

After allegedly confessing his role in the Mekong River murders upon his arrest and recanting it in a recent interview, the media reports that Naw Kham partially admitted knowledge of the murders at the beginning of the short trial, which then concluded with his full admission of guilt and plea for leniency. All other defendants, members of Naw Kham’s gang, promptly confessed their responsibility upon the opening of the trial. They were all accused of murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and hijacking and now face the possibility of the death penalty. During the trial, simultaneous interpretation was provided in Laotian and Thai to accommodate the testimony of foreign policemen and witnesses from Laos and Thailand. Such testimonies are apparently unprecedented in Chinese judicial proceedings. China asserted jurisdiction over the case upon its direct links with the crimes and the victims as well as within the general framework of regional cooperation within the Mekong River. Chinese media also praised the trial as a demonstration of the efficiency of Chinese judiciary to the rest of the world. From an international justice perspective, however, doubts still remain as to the procedural fairness and completeness of such fast-paced trials whose outcome increasingly relies on the defendant confession. Interestingly, the arrest and trial of Naw Kham seems to have fallen under Interpol’s radar, as at the time of writing Naw Kham still remains on its Most Wanted Fugitive List.

Naw Kham Arrives in Court Blindfolded – Not a Common Procedure Everywhere – Xinhua

According to the prosecution, the Chinese boat refused to pay protection money for safe-passage in Naw Kham controlled areas and the murders were framed as a drug related incident to set an example. Several aspects of the murders, however, remain unclear. In particular, one possibly relevant factual element of the case appears to have been given limited consideration, namely the alleged participation in the murders of 9 members of the Thai military, part of an army unit responsible for security along the Mekong. Initial investigations by Chinese authorities already revealed a role played by a group of Thai military. It is still unclear whether they acted in collusion with Naw Kham’s gang. Investigation by Thai authorities, who are currently holding the soldiers as suspects, appear to show conclusive and corroborative evidence of the Thai soldiers shooting at the Chinese boats once they crossed over into Thailand.

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