A Briton said to have serious mental health problems was executed in China today for drug smuggling, a move roundly condemned by the British government. UK prime minister Gordon Brown said he was "appalled and disappointed" by the execution of Akmal Shaikh, a 53-year-old father-of-three, who supporters say had bipolar disorder. His family expressed their grief and asked for privacy.
China issued its first official confirmation of the death sentence delivered by its Supreme Court, defending its use of capital punishment as a deterrent and saying evidence of Shaikh's mental illness was "insufficient". However, the authorities in China have not yet announced that the execution has taken place. Shaikh is the first European national to be executed in China in 58 years, according to the London-based charity Reprieve, which had been providing him with legal counsel.
Shaikh's case sparked condemnation from London and rights activists who said his illness should have been a mitigating factor in his sentencing. Reprieve said China had ignored "overwhelming and unrebutted evidence" of his condition. London had launched an 11th hour appeal for clemency for Shaikh, urging Beijing to "do the right thing" by halting the execution in Urumqi, the capital of China's far-western Xinjiang region.
But Mr Brown said the execution had been carried out. "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," Mr Brown said in a statement issued in London. "I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken." Shaikh, from London, was arrested in September 2007 in Urumqi after arriving from Tajikistan with four kilograms of heroin. Campaigners say a criminal gang duped him into carrying the drugs into China.
He was sentenced to death in December 2008 and lost his final appeal earlier this year in China's Supreme Court, officials say. Two of Shaikh's cousins visited him in Urumqi on Monday and told him of his fate. The family issued a short statement expressing "grief at the Chinese decision to refuse mercy" and thanking Shaikh's supporters who created a Facebook group and staged a vigil in London on Monday.
Reprieve said it had medical evidence that Shaikh suffered from a delusion he was going to China to record a hit single that would usher in world peace. New witnesses have emerged to back that claim. Two British men, Paul Newberry and Gareth Saunders, both quoted by Reprieve, said they had helped him record a song in Poland and it was clear that he was mentally disturbed. Mr Newberry said Shaikh was "was clearly suffering from delusions and it seemed to me he was a particularly severe case of manic depressive."
China's judiciary has already come under fire in the West over the jailing last week of a top dissident, Liu Xiaobo, for subversion. The Supreme Court said the evidence provided by the British side of Shaikh's mental illness was "insufficient", according to a statement published on the central government's website. It justified its use of capital punishment as a deterrent, saying: "To use the death penalty for extremely threatening and serious crimes involving drugs is beneficial to instilling fear and preventing drug crimes."
According to the London-based rights group Amnesty International, China executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined, but the actual numbers put to death remain a state secret. It put the number of executions in China in 2008 at more than 1,700. * AFP