BEIJING (Reuters) - A court in China's vast northern region of Inner Mongolia handed out a death sentence and life in jail for two men charged with the homicide of an ethnic Mongolian herder, state media said on Wednesday, a killing that set off days of rare protests.
The death of Mergen, who had been protesting against pollution caused by a nearby coal mine, sparked wider demonstrations by ethnic minority Mongolians demanding better protection of their rights and traditions.
Beijing, ever worried by threats to stability, is now trying to address some of the protesters' broader concerns about the damage done by coal mining to traditional grazing lands.
State news agency Xinhua said coal truck driver Li Lindong will be executed "for using his vehicle to kill" Mergen. His co-driver, also a Han Chinese, was sentenced to life imprisonment at the court in Xilinhot.
The tough sentences, announced immediately after the six-hour trial ended, underscores the government's determination to show it takes seriously the concerns of the ethnic Mongolians, and that it wants to avoid any more unrest.
The report said the trial was attended by about 160 people, including relatives of Mergen, who like many of China's ethnic Mongolians goes by only one name. Repeated telephone calls to Mergen's family members were unsuccessful.
"The Mongol herder Mergen, together with 20 others, attempted to block the path of Li Lindong's coal truck, in protest against the noise and dust created by the coal trucks day and night near his village," Xinhua said.
"According to police, the truck dragged Mergen for 145 meters and subsequently killed him," the English-language report said.
Telephone calls to the court seeking comment went unanswered.
Xinhua said local residents were "still fuming" over Mergen's death, but his wife Uzhina and brother Bayar had been satisfied with the government's response to the case.
"We saw justice from the result, and I believe that herders from the West Ujimqin Banner will be happy with the result as well," Xinhua quoted Bayar as saying, referring to the epicenter of the protests.
But local official Ding Ruilian expressed sympathy for Li, the driver, saying she felt "heart-struck for the lack of legal awareness of youngsters like (him)."
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up under 20 percent of the roughly 24 million population of Inner Mongolia, have complained that their traditional grazing lands have been ruined by mining and desertification, and that the government has tried to force them to settle in permanent houses.
The authorities have since launched a month-long overhaul of the lucrative coal mining industry, vowing to clean up or close polluters.
Inner Mongolia, which covers more than a tenth of China's land mass, is supposed to enjoy a high degree of self-rule, but Mongolians say the Han Chinese majority hold the power and have been the main beneficiaries of economic development.
China's Mongolians rarely take to the streets, unlike Tibetans or Xinjiang's Uighurs, making the recent protests highly unusual.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)