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China executes Briton said to be mentally ill

Akmal Shaikh had been caught smuggling heroin. His family says he suffered from bipolar disorder.

December 29, 2009|By John M. Glionna
  • Akmal Shaikh, seen in an undated photo, was executed for smuggling heroin into China. His family and supporters say he suffered from mental illness.
Akmal Shaikh, seen in an undated photo, was executed for smuggling heroin… (AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Beijing — The Chinese government today executed a 53-year-old British citizen for drug smuggling, ignoring international pleas for clemency and claims by supporters that he was mentally ill, the British Foreign Office said.

Akmal Shaikh, a father of three with no criminal record, was the first European to be executed in China in half a century, activists say.

He was executed in Urumqi, in China's far northwestern Xinjiang province -- where he was caught in 2007 on a plane with nearly 9 pounds of heroin -- after a flurry of final-hour pleas to save his life. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had also spoken to China's prime minister about the case.

British officials claim that Chinese judges did not take into account family claims that Shaikh suffered from bipolar disorder and failed to order a psychiatric evaluation, as required by law.

Shaikh reportedly learned of his fate during a visit by two cousins Monday. It was the first time that family was allowed to visit the condemned man in two years.

Though many parts of China are switching to lethal injections, Shaikh was probably shot in the head, activists said.

"Drug smuggling is a grave crime. The rights of the defendant have been fully guaranteed," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a news conference last week.

Analysts call the case a setback in efforts to stem Beijing's use of capital punishment. Each year, China executes an estimated 5,000 people -- more than the rest of the world combined -- for crimes including pornography, corruption and drug smuggling.

"This case certainly sends a message that China is not really interested in listening to international opinion when it comes to criminal cases," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a senior researcher for the U.S.-based prisoner rights group Dui Hua Foundation. "These are things that China sees as being connected to its internal stability. And so the rest of the world is being told pretty clearly to mind its own business. It's a message not likely to be received well."

Others said the case was about more than just a failure of international relations.

"Westerners have a long and disreputable history of seeking exemption from Chinese law for their nationals engaged in drug dealing, going back to the Opium Wars of the 19th century," said Christopher Stone, chairman of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "The Chinese cannot treat this convicted drug smuggler differently from others because he is a British citizen."

In recent years, China has reduced the number of executions after the Supreme Court resumed its review of death penalty cases, but the progress did not affect Shaikh's case, analysts say.

A London-based prisoner advocacy group that has lobbied on Shaikh's behalf claims that he wanted to write a song about world peace and was duped into trafficking drugs by men promising to help him fund the recording effort.

When he was arrested on a flight to Urumqi from Tajikistan, Shaikh told Chinese officials that he didn't know about the drugs and that the suitcase wasn't his, according to the group, Reprieve.

Legal experts here say most Chinese support the death penalty. "When government propaganda says that the death penalty is good for the country and lowers crime rates, they believe it and don't ask questions," said Teng Biao, a China University of Political Science and Law professor.

Teng quoted a Chinese saying often applied to the death penalty: "Kill a chicken, scare off the monkey."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Special correspondent Lily Kuo contributed to this report.

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