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In China, cop-killer on death row generates a surprising wave of sympathy

SIHUI, China _One night earlier this year, two men on a motorcycle pulled alongside the unmarked sedan of police Officer Long Jiefeng. One of the riders fired a Remington firearm through the open driver's window, slaying Long with three shots.

If that kind of gangland-style execution is rare in China, what happened next is even more unusual: This small southern city erupted in joy. Townspeople lit fireworks. Bars and nightclubs handed out free drinks.

"People were celebrating. Everyone said Long deserved to die. People said he should have been killed earlier," said Chen Zhaozhi, a retired deputy director of a local cable-television station.

Many townspeople knew that Long, whose nickname was "Hurricane," ran a large triad, or criminal group, that operated gambling dens, loan-sharking networks and protection rackets for local businesses. His underlings regularly bullied their enemies, sometimes beating them to death.

The unusual events in Sihui, which is in the prosperous Pearl River Delta region of southern China's Guangdong province, have gathered the attention of China's leaders, who seek to halt social unrest even as the nation grows more prosperous. It's one of many provincial brushfires that threaten to erode support for the one-party communist rule.

Local party leaders are implicated in the case: It turns out that Long mounted his criminal empire under the wing of an uncle, a former party chief in Sihui, according to many residents.

Long's murder was solved hastily. Authorities pinned the slaying on Liang Jinguo, a 22-year-old construction worker who'd tangled with the triad, which was called the Rising Dragon Society. Liang confessed. The outpouring of sympathy for him is the latest sign of the simmering problems in Sihui, a city of 400,000. More than 10,000 people signed petitions calling for leniency for the murderer.

The signatures did little good. The Zhaoqing Intermediate People's Court handed down a death sentence Oct. 19 for the Feb. 24 slaying.

"I argued that by killing Long, (he) made a big contribution to society. Liang committed a crime. He should be punished. But I don't think he should be put to death," said his lawyer, Shao Shuqiang.

The judge rejected the argument. If Liang loses an appeal, he'll be executed.

On the streets of Sihui (pronounced Sir-whey), one finds few people wondering how a major mafia operated out of the local public-security bureau. Instead, one simply finds mistrust and suspicion of authorities.

Some 30 members of the Rising Dragon Society have been arrested, but Long's criminal enterprise may not be fully extinguished, some fearful residents said.

Here's an account, based on China's state-controlled news media and residents:

The 28-year-old Long operated a large criminal gang. Although he was a low-level cop, he had at least 150 people under him, and enjoyed the cooperation of at least two high-ranking active police. A deputy chief and a department director were among those implicated, according to a legal newspaper and Shao, the lawyer.

Long began his triad in 1999. Some 30 gambling dens prospered, and the flow of protection money appeared to be large, residents said.

"All of Sihui City was under Long's control. When Long's men were caught by the police, leaders at the police bureau would free them," said Liang Faming, the killer's father.

Injustices mounted, and residents and business owners fumed.

Yan Keyong, a pharmaceutical salesman, said bullies tried to recruit his 14-year-old son for the Rising Dragon Society. His son disappeared in November 2002; his burned body showed up two days later.

When Long was gunned down that night near the Shawei Bridge in Sihui, he wasn't wearing his uniform, although he reportedly had a gun in his black Lexus sedan. An unidentified second man was in the car.

Word spread rapidly. Long was so powerful that locals presumed an outsider had killed him. The celebrations in Sihui raised questions elsewhere in Guangdong province over why the city's people would be pleased that a police officer had been killed.

"It's got a lot of people thinking: Why were the townspeople so excited that very evening that Long was killed?" asked Shao, the lawyer.

For months, local officials tried to cover up the fact that the triad leader was also a police officer. It wasn't until early September that a journalist from the powerful state news agency, Xinhua, saw a file on the case noting Long's workplace that media reported that he was an active-duty police officer entrusted with investigating business crimes.

Still, China's media have treated the case carefully, omitting any reference to Long's uncle, Long Honghui, the former party secretary in Sihui, or supreme boss, who was quietly moved to a party desk job in Guangzhou.

Liang Faming holds out hope that an appeal may pull his son off death row.

"Most people in Sihui believe that my son did a heroic act," he said.

Liang Jinguo had served a three-year jail term for the 2001 beating of a member of the Rising Dragon Society who apparently had insulted him.

Once Liang was out of jail, triad members began harassing him, and spread the word that Long wanted him dead by the Lunar New Year, in early February. Liang holed up at his father's home, growing desperate, pondering whether his fate was to kill or be killed.

"He felt he had no choice. He had no way to report the situation to the authorities," Shao said.

At first, the Sihui public-security bureau planned to give Long a public funeral, dressing his corpse in a police uniform and covering his casket with a red party flag. But later, higher level officials nixed the plan and told all police to attend services without their uniforms.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-COP

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