BEIJING A former mining magnate with suspected ties to the family of China's retired security tsar Zhou Yongkang was sentenced to death on Friday on charges of leading a gang on a crime spree spanning two decades.
The sentencing of Liu Han, handed down by a court in the central province of Hubei, was the culmination of one of the highest-profile cases against a private businessman since President Xi Jinping took office last year and began a campaign against pervasive graft.
Liu's younger brother Liu Yong, also known as Liu Wei, was also sentenced to death. Microblog statements from state media outlets China Central Television and the Xinhua news agency said the brothers, along with their 36-member "mafia-style" gang, committed intentional homicide.
Xi's crackdown has zeroed in on Sichuan province, where Liu's company - privately held Hanlong Mining - is based. Sichuan was a power base for Zhou, the retired chief of China's vast domestic security apparatus, who stands at the centre of the biggest corruption scandal in more than six decades, sources have told Reuters.
Sources have told Reuters that Liu was once a business associate of Zhou Bin, Zhou Yongkang's eldest son.
State media have not explicitly linked Liu's case to Zhou Yongkang, but have said Liu's rise coincided with Zhou's time as Sichuan's Communist Party boss.
Liu's lawyer could not be immediately reached for comment.
Willy Lam, a scholar of Chinese history and politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said there would be extra attention paid to the case because of Liu's links to the Zhou family.
"I think what's happening is that Xi Jinping and (Party anti-corruption tsar) Wang Qishan want to establish a harsh precedent because this is one of the biggest corruption cases since Xi took over," Lam said. "They want to set a precedent to make people afraid, in a sense, to have a deterrence impact on corrupt officials."
Prosecutors in Hubei said Liu Han and his younger brother formed the gang in 1993. It "carried out a vast number of criminal activities", including the murders of nine people, they said.
Other members of the gang received sentences ranging from 11 years in prison to death, Xinhua said.
State media reported that Liu, who was arrested last year, faced charges ranging from murder to gun-running and extortion for crimes carried out in Sichuan.
He denied leading a gang, and media reports said he denied killing anyone or holding or trading guns illegally.
Hanlong had attempted to take over Australia's Sundance Resources Ltd, an exporter of iron ore focused on West Africa. The deal was scrapped a year ago after Hanlong missed funding deadlines.
Liu founded Hanlong Group, a conglomerate with interests in sectors from solar energy to real estate and infrastructure, in 1997.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Wang Lan)