Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Tuesday, 29 December 2009

British man said to be mentally ill executed in China

Akmal Shaikh
Akmal Shaikh was arrested in 2007

A British man convicted of drug smuggling in China has been executed, the Foreign Office has confirmed.

Akmal Shaikh, 53, a father-of-three, of London, had denied any wrongdoing and his family said he was mentally ill.

The execution took place despite repeated calls from his family and the British government for clemency.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was "appalled and disappointed". But the Chinese Embassy said Mr Shaikh had no previous record of mental illness.

Mr Shaikh's family made continued calls for leniency right up until the execution deadline, citing his mental state, saying that he suffered from bipolar disorder.

His daughter Leilla Horsnell said: "I am shocked and disappointed that the execution went ahead with no regards to my dad's mental health problems, and I struggle to understand how this is justice."

Brothers Soohail and Nasir Shaikh, who travelled to China to visit their cousin in prison and make a last-minute plea for clemency, said they were "deeply saddened, stunned and disappointed".

'Lethal injection'

In a statement issued after the execution, the Chinese Embassy said Mr Shaikh's rights "were properly respected and guaranteed" and British concerns were "duly noted and taken into consideration".

Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis: "Mr Shaikh had mental health problems"

It said: "As for his possible mental illness which has been much talked about, there apparently has been no previous medical record."

A report from the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said that China's Supreme People's Court had not been provided with any documentation proving that Mr Shaikh had a mental disorder.

Mr Shaikh is the first EU national to be executed in China in more than 50 years.

Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis said he was believed to have died by lethal injection.

His body will not be repatriated to the UK, and Mr Lewis said Mr Shaikh had been buried quickly "in accordance with the Muslim faith".

Mr Shaikh's family said he had been delusional and duped into a carrying a suitcase that did not belong to him when he was found with 4kg of heroin in Urumqi, north-west China, in September 2007.

His daughter has said drug smugglers in Poland convinced him they would make him a pop star in China.

'Inadequate interpretation'

Mr Lewis held last-ditch talks with the Chinese ambassador in London on Monday evening.

He said the government had made 27 representations to China in two years, and believed it had done everything it possibly could.

The way the Chinese authorities have stubbornly failed to take account of this poor man's severe mental illness shows that China is still stuck in the dark ages
Robert Westhead
Charity MDF

The execution made him "sick to the stomach", he said, and China "had a responsibility to adhere to the most basic standards of human rights".

The Chinese ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office.

In a statement, Mr 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.

"At this time our thoughts are with Mr Shaikh's family and friends and I send them our sincere condolences."

Foreign Secretary David Miliband also condemned the execution.

He said the UK was opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, but also "deeply regretted" that his specific concerns in this case, including "mental health issues, and inadequate professional interpretation" had been ignored.

Jiang Yu, Chinese foreign ministry: 'We urge Britain to correct their mistake.'

Conservative leader David Cameron echoed the condemnation, saying he "deplored and deeply regretted" the execution.

"It is appalling that the concerns [about Mr Shaikh's mental health] were not independently assessed during the more than two years [he] was in custody, and taken properly into account in the judicial process," he said.

The legal charity Reprieve had taken up Mr Shaikh's case for the family.

Through the charity, the family issued a statement thanking all those who tried to help including Reprieve, the Foreign Office, those who attended a vigil outside the Chinese embassy in London, and the organisers of a Facebook group calling for clemency.

China executed 1,718 people in 2008, according to Amnesty International
Last year 72% of the world's total executions took place in China, the charity estimates
It applies to 60 offences, including non-violent crimes such as tax fraud and embezzlement
Those sentenced to death are usually shot, but some provinces are introducing lethal injections

They asked for privacy "as they come to terms with what has happened to someone they loved".

Katherine O'Shea, Reprieve's communications director, said it was "devastated" Mr Shaikh had been killed.

"That such a thing can happen in this day and age is really something that should alarm all of us," she said.

"This guy was a very vulnerable person, extremely ill. He slipped through the cracks of society, and he was frankly failed by China and by their legal system. And it's an absolute disgrace that he should have been killed."

Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur, said the execution amounted to a violation of Chinese and international law.

International law "points very strongly in the direction" of the principle that the death penalty should only be used for crimes which result directly in the death of others, he said.

"It is time for the international community to mount a much more concerted effort to put an end to these sorts of executions," he added.

'Dark ages'

In its statement, the Chinese Embassy said Mr Shaikh was convicted of "serious" drug trafficking.

"The amount of heroin he brought into China was 4,030g, enough to cause 26,800 deaths, threatening numerous families," it said.

Sally Rowen of campaign group Reprieve condemned the ''barbaric act''

It added: "The legal structures of China and UK may be different, but it should not stand in the way of enhancing our bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect."

A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Jiang Yu, told a press briefing in Beijing no-one had the right to comment on China's judicial sovereignty.

"We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to the British government's unreasonable criticism of the case. We urge [them] to correct their mistake in order to avoid harming China-UK relations," she said.

BBC world affairs correspondent Mike Wooldridge said in the final appeal for clemency before the execution Britain had expressed the hope that its relationship with China would count for something.

"But in the event, its influence has been severely tested in this case," he said.

Charity MDF, The Bipolar Organisation, described the execution as "medieval rough justice" and an "absolute tragedy".

Spokesman Robert Westhead said: "The way the Chinese authorities have stubbornly failed to take account of this poor man's severe mental illness shows that China is still stuck in the dark ages."

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