KUNMING, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) -- Naw Kham, the principal suspect in the murders of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River last year, denied plotting the attack on Thursday, when he and five other people went on trial in southwest China for the crime.
However, the five other defendants on trial all testified in court that Naw Kham was the gang's ringleader who masterminded the attack.
The trial of the six suspects started at 9:35 a.m. at the Intermediate People's Court of Kunming City, provincial capital of Yunnan.
During the trial, Naw Kham, the head of an armed drug gang from Myanmar, claimed he neither planned nor commanded the deadly attack in October 2011.
Naw Kham, who had confessed to the murders in an arranged interview with media before the trial, made a U-turn in court, saying he was not fully informed about the attack by his fellow ring members.
"I did not know about it at that time," he told the court. "They did not tell me. I was only informed afterward."
Naw Kham did admit that he was the gang's ringleader, saying every member called him "the boss."
One witness at the court said Naw Kham, dubbed the "Godfather" for running one of the most notorious armed drug rings on the section of the Mekong River near the China-Myanmar-Laos borders, maintained an unperturbed smile during the morning's proceedings.
The six defendants -- five from Myanmar, Thailand and Laos and one stateless -- have been charged with intentional homicide, drug trafficking, kidnapping and ship hijacking.
All of the six accused appeared before the court on Thursday. The trial is expected to last for three days.
According to the bill of indictment presented by prosecutors, between the end of September and the beginning of October in 2011, Naw Kham and his subordinates, with the support of a small number of Thai soldiers, planned to hijack Chinese cargo ships and kill the sailors aboard.
The gang had long been angry at Chinese vessels' refusing to pay them "protection fees" while traveling on the river, Naw Kham had previously told police investigators.
Also, the Chinese vessels were allegedly hired by Myanmar soldiers to help raid Naw Kham's ring, prompting the revenge attack.
Under the instruction of Naw Kham, five of his men attacked, hijacked and took control of the sailors on two cargo ships, the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8, and planted drugs on the vessels on Oct. 5, 2011, near a port in Thailand on the Mekong River, prosecutors said.
According to the prosecution, a large amount of evidence, including DNA test results, autopsy reports and witness testimonies, will be produced before the court during the trial.
Present Thursday at the court were relatives of the 13 Chinese victims, embassy personnel of the related countries, Chinese legislators, political advisors, experts and representatives of local residents and media.
All six defendants answered questions raised by the chief justice, judges, prosecutors, victims' relatives and lawyers, respectively, aided by translators invited by the court.
The crime ring was busted earlier this year in a joint operation by police from China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand after the brutal murders of Chinese sailors triggered an outcry in China last year.
Naw Kham was sent to China via a chartered plane in May.
"It is uncommon in China's judicial practice for foreigners who commit crimes against Chinese nationals outside China to be brought to justice before a Chinese court," Dong Lin, vice president of the Intermediate People's Court of Kunming City, told media before the trial.
Li Ruokun, deputy procurator of the Yunnan Provincial People's Procuratorate, said the trial showed China's resolution to severely punish cross-border crimes and to protect the legitimate rights of its citizens.
Li said the suspects' rights were fully respected.
Lin Li, Naw Kham's lawyer, said her rights to meet the defendant and access his criminal files were guaranteed.
With a length of almost 5,000 km, the Mekong River, known in China as the Lancang River, is one of the most important waterways in Southeast Asia, linking the countries of China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It plays a crucial economic role among the Greater Mekong Sub-region countries.