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2018-05-29 12:39:21

Two gang leaders have been sentenced to 20 years in prison for extorting illegal sand miners on the Yangtze River, Wuhan Evening News reported Tuesday.

The intermediate people’s court in Wuhan, the capital of central Hubei province, on Monday called the case the first-ever instance of organized crime posing a danger to the environment. Apart from the two ringleaders, 14 other gangsters were sentenced to between three and 11 years each. Wang Yan, the judge who presided over the case, told Wuhan Evening News such activity that harms the local economy should be severely punished.

Though illegal, unlicensed sand mining is a potentially lucrative business for China’s unscrupulous opportunists. Since the 1990s, the rapid pace of development in the Yangtze River Delta has created huge demand for sand — a key component of concrete. And illegal dredging has become even more tempting as the price of sand has soared in recent years.

But sand mining also affects the river, raising the risk of floods and damaging the environment. In 2002, a railway bridge in Xi’an, in northwestern Shaanxi province, collapsed because of erosion caused by illegal sand mining.

Beginning in 1996, cities along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze — including Wuhan, Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai — began implementing strict regulations on sand mining, requiring dredges to move to approved locations periodically and setting quotas for how much sand could be excavated over a given period of time. In November 2016, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate jointly declared “serious” cases of unlicensed sand dredging to be criminal offenses, whereas such cases had previously been punished by administrative penalties like fines.

Nonetheless, the lucrative industry — in which sand is sometimes referred to as “soft gold” — has attracted thousands of dredges to the Yangtze, and even organized criminal gangs.

In March 2015, Liu Yang and Huang Huayu, the two ringleaders of the operation, began collecting “protection fees” from illegal dredges through intimidation and violence. The police explained that the fees were proportionate with the miners’ profits, and ranged from 2,000 to 30,000 yuan ($310 to $4,700).

According to the court’s verdict, the gangsters had extorted money from local miners on some 2,400 occasions, collecting more than 1.7 million yuan. Though the victims were loath to pay, they couldn’t go to the authorities without exposing their own illicit operations. The protection racket went undetected for a full year, until March 2016 — when more than 10 of the gangsters destroyed a boat with knifes and harpoons, injuring two sailors in the process.

The court determined that the criminals’ actions had severely affected the local shipping industry, caused irreversible damage to the environment, and put the structural integrity of a levee at risk.

Earlier this month, amid concerns of flooding and environmental hazards, Wuhan ordered an blanket ban on all sand mining on the Yangtze and Han rivers.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Workers excavate sand along the Yangtze River near Yichang, Hubei province, Oct. 10, 2013. Liu Junfeng/VCG)