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China execution of Briton stirs outcry

The British government summons China's ambassador for a terse meeting. The execution of a man believed to be mentally ill also draws condemnation from Prime Minister Gordon Brown and rights groups.

December 30, 2009|By Janet Stobart
  • China executed British citizen Akmal Shaikh, 53, despite his apparent mental health issues.
China executed British citizen Akmal Shaikh, 53, despite his apparent… (Luis Belmonte Diaz / Reprieve )

Reporting from London — China's execution of British citizen Akmal Shaikh on drug dealing charges early Tuesday has provoked an outcry of revulsion in Britain.

Chinese Ambassador Fu Ying was summoned to the British Foreign Office for a terse 45-minute meeting with Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis. A statement said the ambassador was called "to hear of the government's regret that Akmal Shaikh's mental health had been ignored by the Chinese judiciary despite repeated interventions by those with an interest in his case."

British officials say that over the last few weeks, a flurry of pleas that China consider the mental stability of the 53-year-old prisoner were ignored by the Chinese government and judiciary.

"I had a difficult conversation with the Chinese ambassador today," Lewis said after the Tuesday morning meeting.

He said he told the ambassador that "the execution of Mr. Shaikh was totally unacceptable," adding that "China had failed in its basic human rights responsibilities in this case, in particular China's court had not considered the representations made about Mr. Shaikh's mental condition."

Shaikh's family had repeatedly said his behavior clearly showed that he suffered from bipolar disorder. They were backed up by independent assessments from social workers in Poland, where Shaikh had lived for two years before his ill-fated trip to China in September 2007, where he was caught carrying nearly 9 pounds of heroin into the country.

He was executed in Urumqi, in China's far northwestern province of Xinjiang, the first European to be put to death in China in half a century, activists say.

British government leaders said they made 27 pleas for clemency or commutation of the sentence in recent weeks, including at an eleventh-hour meeting Monday with Fu, the Chinese ambassador.

After the execution, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "I condemn the execution of Akmal Shaikh in the strongest terms and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted. I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken."

Shaikh's daughter Leilla Horsnell, interviewed recently by the BBC, said her father had been approached by drug smugglers in Poland who convinced him that he could be a pop star in China singing for world peace, and gave him a suitcase to carry into China.

"They recorded a song, and he can't sing, and the song itself is very, very bizarre, but they convinced him that they're going to take him to the clubs in China and make him a huge pop star," she said.

In a statement on behalf of the family, the prisoner advocacy group Reprieve said his relatives were "saddened, stunned and disappointed at the news of the execution."

Amnesty International said: "Under international human rights law, as well as Chinese law, a defendant's mental health can and should be taken into account. . . . It's simply not enough for the Chinese government to say, 'We did the right thing, trust us.' "

Stobart is a news assistant in The Times' London Bureau.

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