Liu Jimin, the high court judge, said: "These cases have had a vile effect both domestically and overseas and can only be handled... in the most severe fashion."

His ruling was broadcast live on state television.

"Only with a fast verdict can we deter these crimes and safeguard citizens' lives," he said.

Hundreds of farmers, teenagers and children had been forced to work in kilns like the one Zhao helped run, enduring prison-like confinement and beatings.

The story surfaced last month after 400 parents posted a plea on the internet about their children who had been sold into slavery in China's northern Shanxi province and neighbouring Henan.

The internet postings led to state-run television broadcasting images of abused and emaciated workers being freed from brick kilns, with some young men too weak to stand.

Officials say 576 enslaved workers have since been rescued.

According to victims' families, as many as 1,000 youths had been working as slaves, but only 41 of those people rescued are children.

Government involvement

Wang Bingbing, the brickyard owner, was given a nine-year sentence.

The kiln was located in a courtyard belonging to Wang's father, a local Communist party village chief.

Six government workers were also charged. 

State media have argued that the government was eager to close the case and had no intention of hold high-ranking officials accountable or to tackle corruption.

"This way, people's feeling of powerlessness always persists," the Southern Metropolis Daily said in an editorial on Tuesday.

The editorial accused the government of ignoring the media and the hundreds of parents who believed their children were trafficked to the Shanxi kilns.

However, investigators had found no evidence of corruption.