On Tuesday, Akmal Shaikh, a 53-year-old Briton who was caught in Xinjiang with four kilograms of heroin in his bag, became the first European to be executed in China for 50 years.
Shaikh’s case has caused uproar in the UK, where campaigners say that he was mentally ill and manipulated into carrying the drugs into China.
After sustained media pressure (and remember that this is Christmas time, when big stories are thin on the ground and papers lap up any news), the case has now been turned into a diplomatic issue, with Ivan Lewis, a British Foreign Office minister, saying the Chinese had ignored 27 appeals from the UK to reconsider the case and perform a mental evaluation of Shaikh. In Pittsburgh, at the G20, Gordon Brown raised the case with Hu Jintao and then again in Copenhagen with Wen Jiabao.
Mr Lewis said he was “sick to my stomach” at the decision to go ahead and execute Shaikh without testing his sanity.
I don’t know whether Shaikh was mentally ill or not. We now will not ever know. However, the story of his life is a sad one. His wife refused to have anything to do with during his incarceration and does not want her name to be known.
He has not seen any of his three children in the UK for years and was also reportedly estranged from his two children in Poland. He had spent time living homeless. His songwriting ambitions and his rambling emails suggest, at best, that he was extremely eccentric.
Article 18 of the 1997 Criminal Code states that the courts must be lenient with suspects who are mentally incapacitated and therefore unaware of their actions. However, the court has discretion to decide whether or not a mental evaluation is necessary. Mentally-ill foreigners have been treated more leniently by courts in the past.
I would hazard a guess that the local court in Urumqi would have been under enormous pressure to convict Shaikh and not to search too hard for mitigating factors. He was carrying a huge haul of drugs, 80 times the quantity that would have qualified him for the death sentence.
Moreover, as the Chinese embassy pointed out, Shaikh had no record of mental illness. He had not been committed to an institution for treatment.
Whether or not Shaikh was mentally ill, the rhetoric from both the UK and China, and the lack of understanding on both sides, shows again how poor the relationship is between China and the West.
On the UK side, predictable articles condemning China for barbarism, including one in the Daily Mail which macabrely sketched out how Shaikh’s corneas would be removed for transplant, would be more forgiveable if the UK took a similar stance against the death penalty in other countries, such as, ahem, the United States.
The reaction from the Chinese, however, has been to raise the spectre of the Opium War and of colonial extraterritoriality, when British subjects were not subject to Chinese law. Since I arrived in China, nearly two years ago, I reckon I have heard the Opium War raised at least twice a week, either in the media or in conversations with Chinese. This war took place 170 years ago and it is time that people got over it. After all, there are far more recent tragedies that no one mentions.
The fact that the Chinese embassy feels the need to point out Britain’s history of colonial oppression, and to suggest that current policy is influenced by events in the far past, does it no favours at all in terms of building China’s “soft power”. It merely reinforces the idea that China is stridently nationalistic and determined to be unaccountable.
It would win more points by outlining the legal process which convicted Shaikh, and by pointing out that every death sentence in China is now examined by the Supreme Court, a recent reform which has led to a dramatic decrease in executions.