One man in China was sentenced to death on Tuesday and 28 people were handed jail terms in the first convictions over a huge slavery scandal that shocked the nation, a judge said.
Zhao Yanbing, a brickyard employee who confessed last month in footage broadcast on national television to killing a mentally handicapped slave, was given the death penalty, High Court judge Liu Jimin said.
The other defendants got prison terms ranging from two years to life.
"These cases have had a vile effect both domestically and overseas and can only be handled... in the most severe fashion," Liu said as he delivered his ruling, which was broadcast live on state television.
"Only with a fast verdict can we deter these crimes and safeguard citizens' lives."
However, human rights groups and ordinary Chinese citizens on the Internet said those convicted could just be scapegoats, and accused the ruling Communist Party of trying to ensure that corrupt officials were not implicated.
The scandal surfaced last month after about 400 distraught parents posted a plea on the Internet about their children who had been sold into slavery in China's northern Shanxi province and neighbouring Henan.
They made their case public after police and local authorities refused to help find their children.
After the Internet postings prompted action from police and attention from the state-run press, disturbing images were broadcast of abused and emaciated workers being freed from brick kilns, with some young men too weak to stand.
Officials say 576 enslaved workers have since been rescued, but the true number of victims is widely believed to be far higher.
Parents initially said up to 1,000 youths had been working as slaves, but only 41 of those people officially rescued are children.
Zhao and the others who received the harshest penalties were involved in running what the state-run media has turned into the most infamous of the Shanxi brickyards.
The foreman, Heng Tinghan, was condemned to life in jail, while owner Wang Bingbing was given a nine-year sentence.
The kiln was located in a courtyard belonging to Wang's father, a local Communist Party village chief, who has been removed from his post and stripped of his party membership, Xinhua news agency said.
Xinhua also said that Heng's wife and his son, both employed at the brick kiln, were jailed for two years each.
After his arrest, Heng shocked the nation with his lack of remorse when he said: "I thought it was a fairly small thing to do."
Zhao, the man sentenced to death, was similarly placed in front of news cameras on June 15 and described in a matter-of-fact manner how he beat to death a mentally handicapped man, aged "57 or 58", for not working hard enough.
"His performance was bad, so I thought that I would frighten him a bit, " Zhao said.
"When I raised the shovel over him I never thought that he would get up and confront me, so I slammed the shovel down on his head."
Zhao was found guilty of illegal detention and intentionally causing harm.
Reaction on the Internet to Tuesday's ruling was swift, with many Chinese netizens calling for stiffer penalties.
"The verdicts are too light. At least the owner of the illegal brick factory and his father, who was also the party chief, should be sentenced to death too," said one post on popular portal Sohu.com.
China also announced on Monday that 95 Communist Party officials in Shanxi had been punished, but most just escaped with warnings.
Only six of them were senior officials in local governments. There has been no report on any punishments being doled out in Henan province.
"It's outrageous," Robin Munro, research director of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, said of this week's punishments.
"Clearly there is one law for ordinary citizens and another for entrepreneurs and party officials."
Güncelleme Tarihi: 17 Temmuz 2007, 18:59