Convicted Burmese druglord Naw Kham withdrew his guilty plea on appeal in court on Thursday after he received a death sentence for the murder of 13 sailors on the Mekong River last year.
The Higher People’s Court of Kunming, in the capital of the China’s southwestern Yunnan Province, heard Naw Kham and five associates deny the charges of masterminding the murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River in October 2011. He also denied being the leader of the criminal gang.
The six had earlier pleaded guilty to murder, kidnapping, drug smuggling and ship hijacking at a previous hearing on Sept. 21.
“They [his subordinates] did it. I had no idea at that time,” Naw Kham told the court on Thursday. “I didn’t ask them to [kill those Chinese sailors].” His Hong Kong-based lawyer argued that murdering the group was “beyond Naw Kham’s original intention.”
Naw Kham is accused of overseeing the kidnapping and murder on the Mekong River on Oct. 5 last year after the 13 sailors allegedly refused to pay protection money. The subsequent public outcry in China led to the establishment of joint patrols of the riparian countries—Laos, Thailand and Burma—under Chinese leadership.
Naw Kham was captured in Laos on April 25 with his associates apprehended in Shan State, Burma, during the course of the spring. Naw Kham was then extradited to China on May 10.
“I am angry about his words, but I feel sad more,” said He Xilun, the owner of one of the ships raided by Naw Kham last year. “You can never bring back those gone.”
He, who lost his brother and sister-in-law in the attack, told The Irrawaddy that even his 56-year-old mother has to work days and nights after the family lost its main breadwinner. “The cost of living [in China] is high and our life has become much worst without them.”
Last month, the Intermediate People’s Court of Kunming sentenced Naw Kham and three of his subordinates to death. Two others were also sentenced; one received the death penalty suspended for two years, and the other a prison term.
Those convicted were also ordered by the court to pay compensation to victims’ families totaling six million yuan (US $960,000). He said the compensation was “too little.”
Observers close to the case suspect that the truth behind what happened on the Mekong in October has not yet been unveiled. “Naw Kham is not the direct killer. He is an insider, but not the chief plotter for sure,” said Yin Hongwei, an investigative journalist in China.
Questions remain over the role of Thai soldiers accused by Chinese authorities of being involved in at least one of the murders. Thai and Chinese officials were cooperating on their prosecution, the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua quoted Nie Tao, a member of the Chinese investigative team, in September.
“It is good that the Chinese police brought him back, but they should not make any conclusion rashly,” added Yin. “[The police and media] should wait for the result of Thailand’s trial on the other nine soldiers and see what they say.”
“The evidence suggests that the Thai security forces were involved,” said Sunai Chulapongsathorn, chairman of the Thailand Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, which conducted its own inquiry into the killings earlier this year.
Reports in Chinese media suggest that the accused Thai soldiers already stood in Chiang Rai trial for their involvement on Nov. 23, although the verdict has not yet been officially announced.
A court official told the Chinese state-run People’s Daily newspaper that one of the Chinese sailors Naw Kham was convicted of killing was in fact the victim of the Thai soldiers. The Thai government will reportedly review the case on Friday or Monday to decide the fate of the accused.
At present, the nine soldiers are being detained in a military camp, a Thai military was quoted by the People’s Daily. Only if they refuse to cooperate with the investigation or tried to escape would the police arrest them, he added.
“Big gangs that are capable of plotting such brutal massacre in Golden Triangle area include the armyof northern Thailand, the Burmese army, theBananWaMilitary Region, the Golden Kapok Casino Group,” another Chinese journalist based in Yunnan who has followed the case from the beginning told The Irrawaddy under condition of anonymity.
“There are several, and compared to any of those, Naw Kham is just a bug.”