In a move likely to exacerbate already delicate Sino-British relations, China on Tuesday executed a 53-year-old Briton convicted of heroin smuggling, despite multiple pleas for clemency for mental illness by his family, human rights advocates, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
At 10:30 a.m. local time, Akmal Shaikh, a London cab driver of Pakistani origin and the father of five children, was put to death by lethal injection in Urumqi, the capital of the largely-Muslim Xinjiang region of western China, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Mr. Shaikh's court-appointed attorneys, Cao Hong and Qi Lei of the Xinjiang North law firm, failed to convince the Supreme People's Court that their client had been framed by a drug gang preying on his alleged disability, according to Reprieve, the London-based anti-death-penalty advocacy that tried to assist in his case.
After the court reiterated its decision and an eleventh hour appeal by the Foreign office in London failed to sway the Chinese ambassador to call Beijing, Shaikh became the first European citizen to be executed in China in 58 years, Chinese media said, citing Ministry of Foreign Affairs records.
British Prime Minister Brown reacted immediately in a statement issued by the Foreign Office in London: "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."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu retorted from a press conference in Beijing: "Nobody has the right to speak ill of China's judicial sovereignty. We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition over the groundless British accusations. We urge the British side to mend its errors and avoid damaging China-British relations."
Long-simmering British tensions
Chinese are mindful of defeats by Britain during the Opium Wars in the 1800s that led to Hong Kong's colonization. Beijing regularly voices concern about the heroin problem in Xinjiang, a region bordering Central Asia that was rocked by ethnic violence and protests in July, followed by widespread panic over alleged syringe attacks in September.
An October survey by The Global Times, a nationalistic Chinese newspaper, said that 96.7 percent of more than 3,500 online respondents said British media were interfering with Shaikh's case, while 98.8 percent supported the court's guilty verdict.
Over the weekend, Shaikh was still "hopeful" when relatives met him in Urumqi, his cousin Soohail Shaikh told reporters at Beijing airport late on Monday. Cousins Seema Khan and Latif Shaikh were in Beijing on Tuesday to make last-minute pleas to authorities.
But the execution went ahead after the court rejected late testimony brought forward by Reprieve from people who knew Shaikh in Warsaw, where he lived in a homeless shelter before coming to China in 2007. "There is no reason to cast doubt on Akmal Shaikh's mental status," the court said in a statement.
Acquaintances in Poland told Reprieve that Shaikh was obsessed with "Come Little Rabbit," a song he wrote to promote world peace that he believed would make him a pop star.
"It was clear that he was mentally ill, although he was a very likable person, friendly and very open," said British Warsaw resident Paul Newberry, according to Reprieve.
China's penal code specifies that a mental patient can be exempted of criminal responsibility only when his crime was committed while out of control of his own conduct.
Death penalty for heroin possession
Shaikh was arrested in September 2007 for possession of about nine pounds of heroin found in his suitcase in the Urumqi airport as he arrived from Tajikistan. The amount is 80 times the 50-gram threshold for a death sentence under Chinese drug law.
Chinese authorities originally indicated a willingness to allow an examination by a local doctor, but subsequently refused, according to Reprieve, which then paid for a British psychologist to fly to Urumqi, where he, too, was denied a chance to gauge Shaikh's mental health.
"The reviewing court thus had the benefit of no expert opinion on this crucial issue," said Jerome Cohen, of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University, in The South China Morning Post on Dec. 23. The court "did, however, apparently allow the defendant the opportunity, against the advice of his lawyers, to deliver a rambling, often incoherent, statement that caused the judges to openly laugh at him."
According to Philip Alston, United Nations rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Shaikh's initial conviction was based on a 30-minute hearing that "would not indicate due process."
A statement on China's central government's website justifies capital punishment as a deterrent: "To use the death penalty for extremely threatening and serious crimes involving drugs is beneficial to instilling fear and preventing drug crimes."
But international law reserves capital punishment for crimes of lethal violence, Alston told the BBC: "It is not appropriate, under international law, for drug traffickers to be executed."
The last European to be executed in China was the Shanghai-born Italian Antonio Riva, who was shot for espionage in Beijing in August 1951.
Wang Ping contributed reporting.