BEIJING, June 8, 2011 (AFP) - A court in north China sentenced a coal truck driver to death Wednesday after he ran over and killed an ethnic Mongol herder, sparking protests across the restive Inner Mongolia region.
Li Lindong was sentenced to death by an intermediate court in Xilinhot city for the May 10 homicide of the herder named Mergen that led to street protests against resource exploitation and environmental damage in the region, Xinhua news agency said.
Lu Xiangdong, who was in the truck with Li, was given a life sentence in the six-hour trial, while two others who helped the defendants flee the scene were sentenced to three years for obstructing justice, it said.
Mergen and other Mongols -- fed up with an influx of mining companies intent on reaping the region's rich coal reserves -- had attempted to block a number of coal-hauling trucks, including the one driven by the two accused.
But Mergen was struck and dragged for 145 metres (yards), killing him, Xinhua said.
Li and Lu are members of China's dominant Han ethnic group, and the incident laid bare simmering discontent among the Mongol minority.
Subsequent protests by thousands of ethnic Mongols were reported across Inner Mongolia, a vast region of rolling plains and deserts that separates the rest of China from independent Mongolia to the north.
The region has traditionally been home to nomadic Mongol herders.
The four convicted said they would appeal their sentences, Xinhua said. About 160 people attended the public trial including relatives of the defendants as well as members of Mergen's family.
China moved swiftly in the wake of the protests to tighten security, including sealing off some restive college and high school campuses.
Residents in protest-hit areas have reported that a tense calm has returned.
Many Mongols complain that Chinese culture is swamping their way of life.
In particular, a Chinese government policy to move traditional Mongol herders off the steppe to preserve the grassland ecology is widely considered a pretext to seize lands holding coal and other minerals.
China's government, apparently rattled by the unrest, has issued a series of pledges to address Mongol concerns, including announcing a crackdown on unmonitored coal extraction and measures to ensure more environmentally sound mining.