Naw Kham, a drug gang leader from Myanmar, is led to the chamber in Yunnan… (Wang Shen / New China News…)
BEIJING — It was reality television in the extreme.
Chinese state television Friday broadcast live images of the last moments of four foreign drug traffickers who were about to be executed for the 2011 killings of 13 Chinese fishermen on the Mekong River. Although the cameras pulled away before the lethal injections, the coverage was unprecedented, unleashing a storm of criticism and debate about the death penalty.
Psychologists decried the coverage as distressing to children. Lawyers complained that it violated a clause in the criminal code against parading the condemned before execution.
"This carnival on CCTV was a violation not only of ethics, but of the criminal code regulations that the death penalty not be carried out in public," wrote human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan on a microblog. Many others, however, applauded the execution of the four drug traffickers for unusually heinous slayings that had galvanized the public.
The execution coverage appeared to a large extent intended to illustrate China's rising power to both the domestic and foreign public. The drug traffickers had been captured in Laos after an extensive manhunt that some commentators likened to the U.S. search for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan in 2011 by U.S. forces.
China executes about 4,000 people each year, more than all other countries in the world combined, although the numbers and the crimes carrying the death penalty are gradually being reduced.
Public executions once were common, but nowadays there is usually no more than a brief news report and video of the condemned before an execution. A feisty regional television station in Henan province ran a popular talk show called "Interviews Before Execution" with death row prisoners, but it was canceled last year amid objections that it was exploitative.
"I don't know of any other country, not Iran, Afghanistan or North Korea, that has nationally broadcast in this way the last moments of an executed prisoner," said Nicholas Bequelin, Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. "It is a step backward at a time we thought China was making progress with the death penalty."
Although many Chinese were shocked by the live coverage, they applauded the death sentences as just retribution for a particularly violent crime. The 13 Chinese fishermen were ambushed, shot to death while tied up with rope, their bound, bullet-ridden bodies dumped in the river Oct. 5, 2011, in the Golden Triangle — a longtime haven of drug production and trafficking in the border region of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Authorities said their two boats, splattered with blood, were recovered after a police shootout with gang members.
The outraged Chinese government considered a drone attack to kill the drug traffickers, but in the end launched an international manhunt. Its Public Security Ministry formed a special investigation group of 200 officers and worked with authorities in Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
Ultimately, investigators arrested six suspects in Laos last spring. The men were extradited to China, tried and convicted in November. Four were condemned to death and two received long prison terms.
China subsequently established a multinational river patrol that has led to an expansion of Chinese influence in the area.
The kingpin executed Friday was Naw Kham, 44, a Myanmar national who allegedly commanded a militia of 100 men in the Golden Triangle region. Two of the other men executed were Laotian, and the third was Thai.
The nearly two-hour broadcast included live coverage of the men being taken from their prison cells in southwestern Yunnan province with their hands trussed behind their backs with ropes. A doctor in a white coat was shown examining the prisoners in preparation for execution.
The television commentator went on at some length about how well the men had been treated in prison.
"From the appearance of these criminals, you can clearly tell our prison has carried out humanitarian spirit. These criminals clearly look healthier ... with better skin complexion than when they were arrested," the commentator said.
At one point, the broadcast cut away to show a gala-style award ceremony complete with patriotic music and small children carrying bouquets of flowers for the investigators who had helped capture the drug traffickers.
Chinese television also broadcast an interview of Naw Kham taped this week in which he said, "I am afraid of death. I want to live. I don't want to die. I have children. I am afraid."
The Yunnan Province Public Security Bureau issued a one-sentence report on its website at 2:55 p.m. Friday confirming that Naw Kham and his accomplices were dead.
John Hannon and Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.