1st LD Writethru: NEWSMAKER-Mekong drug lord faces murder trial in China

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, September 19, 2012
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by Xinhua Writers Xu Lingui, Li Huaiyan, Li Meng

KUNMING, Sept. 19 (Xinhua) -- In the criminal underworld, Naw Kham was often referred to as the "Godfather" for running one of the most prominent armed drug rings in a major drug-producing region in Southeast Asia.

But his rein over the section of the Mekong River near the China-Myanmar-Laos borders was brought to an end earlier this year by a joint police operation after the brutal murders of 13 Chinese sailors last October.

Though once considered "blessed" and "untouchable" by the local people in Myanmar, Naw Kham was arrested and his drug ring busted in Laos in April. Naw Kham and five of his top aides were all brought to China by August and charged with murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and ship hi-jacking.

Naw Kham will stand trial before a local court in the southwestern city of Kunming on Thursday. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Liu Yuejin, leader of the Chinese police team set up to investigate the case, said China has jurisdiction for the trial because the murders occurred on China-registered ships and the victims were Chinese nationals.

"Both Myanmar and Thailand wanted the case. Naw Kham is from Myanmar and the crime scene is in Thailand. But after negotiations, they allowed the trial to proceed in China," Liu said.

Police officers from Thailand and Laos, as well as civilians, will testify in court. Led by a deputy police chief, six Thai police officers and ten civilians arrived in Kunming on Wednesday.


Police said Naw Kham already confessed to the murders during interrogations.

"I was terribly wrong for having done it. I am sorry for the Chinese sailors and hope the Chinese can grant me leniency," Naw Kham told reporters in an arranged interview in police custody ahead of the trial.

"I apologize to the victims' families," Naw Kham said. "We organized and carried out the murders."

Naw Kham was born an ethnic Shan minority in northern Myanmar in 1969. Formerly an aide to the notorious Shan rebel commander Khun Sa, Naw Kham re-organized Khun Sa's rebel forces after the war lord and drug kingpin surrendered to the Myanmar government in 1996.

It is estimated that Naw Kham controlled a militant army of 100 people and had become a figure to be reckoned with in the drug-producing "Golden Triangle" region on the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Naw Kham was also a drug addict.

His ring particularly terrorized the Mekong waterways at the border region. The militants armed themselves with pistols, rifles, rocket launchers and grenades, and engaged in rampant crimes targeting businesspeople and tourists, alike.

Over the past four years, Naw Kham's group carried out 28 attacks targeting Chinese nationals traveling on the Mekong, killing 16 of them and wounding another three, according to Chinese police investigators.

In 2008, Naw Kham's men fired shots at Chinese police speedboats traveling on the Mekong, wounding two police officers on board.

Their last targets were the Chinese cargo ships Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8.

On Oct. 5, 2011, the ships were ambushed near Thailand's Chiang Saen Port. The corpses of 13 sailors were later found floating in the river, blindfolded, hands tied and handcuffed. Some suffered multiple gunshot wounds.

Naw Kham told police investigators that he ordered the killings because he had long suspected that the Chinese vessels were involved in drug trafficking and refused to pay him "protection fees."

The Chinese vessels were also allegedly borrowed by Myanmar soldiers in September to raid a hide-out of Naw Kham's ring in September, killing four and injuring three of his men, said Han Xuguang, a senior police official investigating the case.

"It was considered the last straw that made Naw Kham determined to seek revenge," the police investigator said. "He thought the Chinese sailors took the Myanmar soldiers to launch the raid."

Naw Kham's subordinates colluded with Thai soldiers to carry out the revenge attack, planning to kill the sailors and blame them for alleged drug trafficking. The soldiers have been investigated in Thailand.

Weng Mie, the ring's fourth commander-in-chief, confessed to police investigators that he asked his men to put 919,600 tablets of methamphetamine on the Chinese vessels to forge the "drug trafficking" scene after they hijacked the ships.

Following the murders, China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand in late October agreed to take joint action to crack down on cross-border crime along the Mekong River. The four countries agreed to share intelligence and organize joint patrols.

However, joint police operations were only able to pin down Naw Kham after a six-month manhunt in the remote and lush forests of the "Golden Triangle" region, where the "Godfather" enjoyed extensive connections with people from tribal leaders to ordinary villagers.

Liu, the police official, said it was by far "the most complicated criminal case Chinese police have ever handled."

On Oct. 29, 2011, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called his Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra to express his sympathies to the flood victims of the Southeast Asian nation and to offer fresh aid, and China's police chief Meng Jianzhu discussed the investigation of the Naw Kham case with leaders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

Yu Haibin, a Chinese police investigator in charge of the collaboration with Lao police, said Naw Kham remained defiant in the first few days following his arrest in Laos. He did not want to talk to low-ranking police officers and thought there was nothing he could not do with money.

But that attitude started to change when he was transferred to Chinese authorities. "He was afraid that for all the brutality he ordered against the Chinese sailors, he might now be on the receiving end," Yu added.

Chinese police said Naw Kham's rights as a criminal suspect were fully respected. He was provided a lawyer and briefed on Chinese laws via language interpreters. Enditem

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