Reporter's murderer sentenced to life in prison

A Chinese mine boss convicted of beating a reporter to death was sentenced to life in prison, state media and a court official said Thursday. This case has prompted an unusual intervention by President Hu Jintao.

Hou Zhenrun, the head of a small unlicensed mine outside the northern city of Datong, was sentenced to life in prison for his role organizing a gang of five men to beat reporter Lan Chengzhang and his colleague, Chang Hanwen on Jan. 10, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Lan died the next day in a hospital.

The death of Lan - who allegedly went to the mine to conduct interviews on the day he was attacked - was the highest profile case of violence against journalists in recent years, prompting an unusual demand by President Hu for an investigation.

The Intermediate People's Court of Linfen city in Shanxi province convicted Hou and sentenced him to life imprisonment on Wednesday for causing the death of another by malicious injury, said a court official who would only give his surname, Wang.

Hou has already appealed the sentence and the case is expected to move to the Shanxi Provincial High Court, Wang said.

Lan's family expressed disappointment over the ruling.

"We are dissatisfied with the result because the sentence is too light," Lan's brother-in-law, Li Wenxian, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. He said the family wanted the death penalty for Hou and that similar cases had resulted in death penalties.

However, Li said, the family was pleased with the judgment in a related civil case that ordered the defendants to pay Lan's relatives 308,000 yuan (US$40,500;EUR30,000) in compensation. Lan is survived by his wife and two daughters, 14 and 5.

The five men who Hou ordered to beat the reporters - Zheng Wenping, Wu Qiang, Ma Li, Li Zhihong and Gao Bo - were given jail terms of five to 15 years. Another man, Zheng Gui, was sentenced to a year in jail for harboring the suspects, Wang said.

Lan, a newly hired reporter for the Beijing-based China Trade News, died in a hospital from head injuries the day after the attack. Chang sustained a broken arm and other injuries.

Unconfirmed reports said Lan may have been trying to collect money from Hou in return for not writing about his business.

Li said the family strongly denies such claims and insists Lan went to the mine for legitimate reporting work.

Chinese reporters often cut deals to write positive stories or suppress negative news in return for bribes or promises to buy advertising in their publications.

While the government condemns such practices, journalists and academics say they are often driven by official policies that exert tight political control on content while forcing publications to struggle for revenue.