A court on Friday convicted 52 members of a baby-trafficking gang that smuggled 118 infants for sale in southern China, sentencing the ringleaders to death or life in prison.

The case included a highly publicized incident in March, 2003, in which 28 baby girls, none older than three months, were found hidden in nylon tote bags aboard a long-distance bus, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The case highlighted the scale of China's thriving black market in babies (search) and came less than two weeks after police announced the arrests of 95 people in northern China in an unrelated baby-trafficking ring.

In the ruling Friday, a court in the city of Nanning sentenced gang leaders Xie Deming and Cui Wenxian to death, Xinhua said. Four others were given suspended death sentences — a penalty that is often later commuted to life in prison.

Five gang members received life in prison, while 40 others were sentenced to at least 18 months, Xinhua said. One person was convicted but received no penalty, the report said without explanation.

The ring was based in the city of Yulin (search) in the southern region of Guangxi, one of China's poorest areas.

Chinese authorities say thousands of children are abducted or bought from poor families every year for sale to childless couples. Girls are sometimes sold as brides in rural areas with fewer women.

The trade is driven in part by China's birth control policy that limits most couples to one child. The limit prompts some parents to kill baby girls in hopes of trying again for a boy. A purchased child that is registered as adopted doesn't trigger the large fines or other penalties imposed by the "one child" policy.

According to Xinhua, Xie bought infants from midwives, health care workers or other baby-traffickers in Yulin and passed them on to Cui, who had them smuggled to buyers as far away as northern China.

Babies were drugged to keep them asleep while being smuggled, leading to at least one death, Xinhua said.

The baby girls found in March at a rest stop in Guangxi were bound for the eastern province of Anhui, according to police. They said they were acting on a tip when they searched the bus.

The Xinhua report named 12 employees of two Yulin hospitals who it said sold babies for $12 to $24 each.

Authorities said earlier that no families had claimed the babies rescued in March, and the report Friday gave no details of what happened to them. Local officials said they might wind up being raised in orphanages because they were too young to give any indication of where to find their parents.

Communist authorities — led by Mao Zedong (search), who famously remarked that women "hold up half the sky" — prided themselves on raising the status of women. Upon taking power in 1949, they ended the prewar custom of selling unwanted daughters to brothels or as servants.

But the trade has flourished amid looser social controls and tighter enforcement of birth control rules meant to limit the growth of China's population of 1.3 billion people.

In the case earlier this month, authorities on July 13 announced the arrests of gang members who they said sold 76 infants bought from clinics in the northern city of Hohot, capital of the Inner Mongolia region.

News reports said they were born to migrant women, college students or other unmarried mothers, suggesting that some were sold by their parents.