By MICHAEL WINES
Published: June 8, 2011
BEIJING — An ethnic Han truck driver who killed an ethnic Mongolian herder in a hit-and-run accident last month, sparking Inner Mongolia’s largest protests in 20 years, was sentenced to death on Wednesday by a court in Xilinhot, the area of Inner Mongolia where the accident occurred.
The swift resolution of the case reflected Chinese leaders’ deep concern about ethnic tensions in China, where Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans also have mounted violent protests against perceived injustices under rule by the Han, by far China’s largest ethnic group.
Inner Mongolia, in north central China, is a region separate from Mongolia, which is an independent nation that borders both Russia and China.
The driver, Liu Lindong, was sentenced by the Intermediate People’s Court in Xilinhot after a six-hour trial attended by 160 people, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. A second driver who was in the truck’s cab at the time, Lu Xiangdong, was found guilty of homicide and sentenced to life in prison, Xinhua reported. Two others, both Han, received three-year sentences after being convicted of obstructing justice for helping the two drivers escape the accident scene.
The charges stem from an incident on May 10 in which Mr. Liu ran over a herder named Mergen who, like most Mongols, used a single name. Mergen was among other Mongols who were blocking a road to protest environmental damage by trucks hauling coal from Mongolian mines that have only lately become a major source of coal for Chinese power plants.
Environmentalists say the trucks and attendant pollution are ravaging the delicate grasslands that sustain Mongolia’s nomadic herders. More broadly, the trucks symbolize the low-boil discontent that some Mongolians are said to feel about their marginal power in a Han-ruled nation.
Police officers said that Mr. Liu dragged Mergen’s body nearly 500 feet before stopping. Outrage over the accident, as well as the death of a second Mongolian in a battle with Han Chinese coal miners, led to six days of street protests last month by thousands in the Mongolian capital, Hohhot, and elsewhere.
The unrest is believed to have posed a particular challenge to Inner Mongolia’s Communist Party secretary, Hu Chunhua, who is regarded as a rising star in China’s party ranks. Mr. Hu has made a point of pledging that the government would ensure that justice would be done in the case.