BEIJING (AP) - A foreman from a kiln in north China where workers were beaten and forced to work 18-hour days was sentenced Tuesday to life in jail and another man was sentenced to death for the beating death of a laborer, a court official said.
The slave labor scandal erupted after hundreds of parents complained their children were being forced to work in brick kilns in central China's Henan, Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces.
Heng Tinghan, the foreman of a kiln in Shanxi province's Hongtong county, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on charges of intentional injury and unlawful detention, said Shanxi Provincial High Court Vice President Liu Jimin during an online video press conference.
Heng, 42, had become the suspected chief villain in the scandal after state media reported that a worker died at the kiln he ran in Hongtong's Caosheng Village and ran pictures of workers with their skin rubbed raw or severely burned.
His kiln enslaved 34 laborers, including nine who were mentally disabled, Liu said. The court heard that between March 2006 and May of this year, 19 workers were injured and one died.
One of Heng's enforcers testified that shifts for the laborers began at 5 a.m. and lasted until as late as 11 p.m., the official Xinhua News Agency reported earlier. It said Heng supervised the workers and ordered his subordinates to beat the ''lazy'' ones.
Heng's subordinate Zhao Yanbing was sentenced to death for committing intentional injury, Liu said. The court said that he was responsible for the beating death of a laborer identified as Liu Bao.
Xinhua said Zhao had previously admitted on national television to beating a mentally handicapped man to death with a shovel for not working fast enough last November. The court did not say whether Liu was mentally handicapped.
Chinese leaders have made improving the often miserable plight of China's hundreds of millions of migrant workers a priority, yet exploitation, nonpayment of wages, and other abuses and government neglect remain common.
Kiln boss Wang Bingbing was sentenced to nine years in jail for unlawful detention, said Liu, the court official. Wang's father was a village-level Communist Party secretary, and he was expelled from the party after the scandal broke.
The People's Daily newspaper has quoted Wang as saying the operation originally had employed local workers, but began using those provided by human traffickers last year after falling into debt.
The convictions were handed down by the Intermediate People's Court of Linfen City in Shanxi. It was not immediately clear whether the men would appeal.
Close to 1,000 workers were released following police raids over recent months. Premier Wen Jiabao has ordered a thorough probe and punishment of kiln owners and officials who abetted their activities.
The use of slave workers came under the spotlight in part because of an open letter posted online signed by a group of 400 fathers appealing for help in tracking missing sons they believed were sold to kiln bosses.
The fathers accused Henan and Shanxi authorities of ignoring them or even protecting the kilns and human traffickers, saying about 1,000 children were being forced to work at kilns under conditions of extreme cruelty.
Workers as young as 8 were recruited from bus and train stations with false promises or abducted off the street, then sold to kilns for 500 yuan (US$65;euro49) each, state media said.
China has punished dozens of low-level officials for allowing the brick kilns to operate using slave labor. However, higher-ranking officials have been cleared of wrongdoing and a top provincial official on Monday dismissed allegations of corruption.
The Communist Party disciplined 95 officials at the county level or lower for malfeasance, said Yang Senlin, vice secretary of the Shanxi Provincial Party Discipline Inspection Committee. Three were expelled from the party and 33 were fired, while the others were demoted or received either a warning or black marks on their records.
''No corruption has been found among officials in Shanxi after a careful monthlong investigation,'' Yang said Monday during a press conference. However, municipal-level officials had to apologize to the provincial party committee for their failed leadership.
A total of 29 people were convicted Tuesday in seven different courts in Shanxi for their roles in the slavery scandal, Liu said. Another 12 people are still standing trial.
Liu said that six men who worked for Heng were convicted by the Hongtong County People's Court in Shanxi of unlawful detention and sentenced to between 18 months and three years in jail.