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Delusional British National Executed in China over Drug Smuggling

Coming on the heels of its efforts to derail climate change talks in Copenhagen and the stiff prison sentence handed over to a political dissident popular in the West, German newspapers see the handling of the prosecution and execution of a British citizen in China as the latest example of the country's "immature" behavior on the global political stage.

Few issues are as sensitive in Europe than that of capital punishment. The death penalty is banned in each of the 27 European Union member states and media coverage is often highly critical of state-ordered executions in the United States and China.

Tuesday's execution by lethal injection in China of Akmail Shaikh, a 53-year-old British national with an alleged history of mental illness who was busted in 2007 for smuggling 4 kilograms (around 9 pounds) of heroin, is no exception. But coming just days after China stalled global climate negotiations in Copenhagen and issued a stiff, 11-year sentence against Liu Xiaobo, a dissident well known in the West, tensions between Europe and China have clearly been exacerbated.

Shaikh's family, politicians and British rights group Repreive, which mounted a Web campaign this month in an effort to save the condemned man, claim that the Chinese justice system brushed aside requests that he be given a psychiatric evaluation. Helen Pidd, a journalist with Britain's Guardian newspaper, meticulously profiles the man's apparent slide into mental illness -- a world where he suffered under the delusion he was about to become a pop star with his out-of-tune song "Come Little Rabbit," which he thought could help bring about world peace.

Family and friends claim he was duped by Eastern European criminals who he believed had connections to music producers and promoters into unwittingly smuggling drugs into China. Those familiar with Shaikh -- both in Britain and where he later lived in Poland -- described a man who behaved erratically, became estranged from his wife and showed signs of mental illness, including hundreds of delusional e-mails he apparently sent to the British embassy in Warsaw.

The outrage in Europe is centered on the question of why a man who appeared to be mentally ill was not given proper treatment. Under Chinese law, the prospect of mental illness must be considered before capital
punishment may be applied.

In Britain, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown had personally intervened to seek clemency for Shaikh, the government summoned China's ambassador to a 45-minute meeting on Tuesday with Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis, who said the diplomat had been 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." Such criticism extended across Europe, including Germany.

"To the Chinese leadership, this was about a demonstration of power rather than rule of law," said Gnter Nooke of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, who is the government's top human rights official. For a number of years, Germany and the European Union have held a dialogue with China on the rule of law and human rights. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nooke indirectly suggested those talks could be jeopardized. He said Shaikh's execution showed "what wobbly legs our dialogue about greater rule of law and human rights in China are standing on."

Meanwhile, Renate Wohlwend, an official at the Council of Europe, the powerful European human rights watchdog, criticized the execution."Capital punishment has a brutalizing effect in society," she said. "It must be totally removed once and for all from the legislation of all countries which strive to uphold democracy, the rule of law and human rights."

German commentators on Wednesday are universally critical of Beijing, with one of the country's largest newspapers accusing China of unacceptable immaturity on the global stage.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The execution of a British citizen in China is causing far greater disturbance than it normally would, even if it were a European getting the death penalty in the United States. In the Chinese justice system, excessive killing isn't the only problem, and the execution of Akmal Shaikh is now drawing attention to that here at home. More than anything, the system lacks transparency and that makes it seem arbitrary. In the case of Shaikh, it is especially outrageous because even in China, the fact that he was mentally ill should have been treated as a mitigating factor. Was his mental state even examined? Were dozens of petitions taken seriously? In this case, the Chinese system also showed itself to be unrelenting politically, and that will have consequences."

"It is highly unusual for the prime minister, foreign minister and even the opposition leader to make a plea to a foreign government and then to be brushed off the way they were by China. Their pleas were ignored by the Chinese government and that points to a fundamental problem that is becoming increasingly frequent in dealings with China. China is a hypersensitive behemoth. Any time the country is criticized for its foreign policy (relations with rogue states, for example) or its domestic policies (its treatment of minorities in Tibet or Xinjiang, or human rights policies), it reacts aggressively. In simple political disputes, like currency policies or its obstructive moves during climate negotiations, it responds brusquely and with hostility. In its international dealings, China shows an immaturity that is no longer appropriate given its size and importance in the world. China warns against interference into internal matters, but that's an absurd, empty phrase in an interwoven world in which domestic situations indeed play a role in decisions on investments and political cooperation."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"China has taken a liking to ignoring Western wishes and input. At the global climate conference in Copenhagen, it was the main saboteur. A dissident who found resonance abroad received a long prison sentence. And now a British citizen has been executed, despite several pleas for mercy by Gordon Brown and his government."

"The man was condemned for drug smuggling in a hasty trial in which the court coldly brushed aside objections that the accused was mentally ill. What kind of person would come to the idea that if he smuggled 4 kilograms of heroin into China for 2 Polish drug smugglers that they would make him a pop star there?"

"The leaders in Beijing appear to be brimming with confidence, and Americans and Europeans are feeling it. And when they actually do dare to raise their voices, the Chinese comeback line is always 'respect our sovereignty.' The execution underscores the massive difference in the legal systems -- and China's contempt for the West."

The center-left Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel writes:

"China has executed a drug smuggler and the fact that the man was British is incidental -- no foreign passport can protect someone who has crossed a border with 4 kilos of heroin. But the situation isn't as simple as it appears at first glance. It also has historical resonances. When the Brits used their power (close to 200 years ago) to destroy the Chinese empire through forced opium imports, China was powerless to act. So China's insistence to refuse to tolerate external interference today is even louder in a case where a Brit has been condemned for smuggling in enough drugs to 'kill 26,000 people.' One could even follow the reasoning there.

"But China's position highlights less of a legitimate consciousness of history than a revanchist national consciousness. If Akmal Shaikh had just been convicted as a straightforward drug dealer, the outrage in the West would have been limited. But if an apparently mentally ill man, whose culpability is questionable, was convicted as an historical scapegoat, then China shouldn't expect any understanding."

The conservative daily Die Welt, under the headline, "State Murder,"writes:

"The real reason for the outrage in London and the West is not the detestable death penalty itself but rather the lack of transparency in the case. Akmal Shaikh was no political incident. Why didn't the court allow doctors to examine him? If it is true that the man suffered from serious psychiatric problems, it also would have been a crime under Chinese law to execute him. If he wasn't mentally ill, nobody in Europe would have applauded his death penalty but they also wouldn't have been as loud in their denunciation of China.

"The answer is simple: China didn't want to set a precedent for a foreigner. The Chinese justice system issues more death penalties each year than any other country in the world. But it is too cowardly to provide proceedings that are transparent or anything close to adhering to the rule of law."

Source: Der Spiegel, December 30, 2009

Britain strongly condemns China for execution of drug trafficker

Britain and China were engaged in a fierce diplomatic argument Tuesday after the Chinese government executed a British citizen for drug trafficking despite claims that he was mentally ill and unfit to stand trial.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the execution of Akmal Shaikh, a 53-year-old father of 3, "in the strongest terms," adding that he was particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken.

Shaikh, who was caught smuggling heroin into China, was put to death by lethal injection Tuesday in Urumqi, the capital of China's westernmost province of Xinjiang. Shaikh's family issued a statement saying it was "ludicrous" that he was required to prove his own mental disability, which it characterized as bipolar disorder.

The British Foreign Office underscored its anger by formally summoning the Chinese ambassador in London for a confrontation with Ivan Lewis, one of its ministers. Lewis said after the meeting that he had told the ambassador in a "difficult conversation" that China had "failed in its basic human rights responsibilities."

British officials indicated privately that they were "realistic" about the case and did not think it would undermine the deeper political and trading relationship between Britain and China. China, however, reacted toughly, saying the British should withdraw their criticism if they did not want to damage bilateral relations.

Beijing said "strong resentment" about illegal drugs in the country was based on "the bitter memory of history," a reference to Britain's role in enforcing the importation of opium into China in the 19th century.

"It is the common wish of people around the world to strike against the crime of drug trafficking," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. China carried out more executions than the rest of the world combined last year, Amnesty International said.

Early signs of Chinese public opinion suggested widespread approval of the execution, with most respondents on Sohu.com, a popular Web site, supporting it.

Even in Britain, public opinion was at least somewhat divided, with readers of one popular daily posting support online for a column suggesting that the decision may have been justified.

Source: Washington Post, December 30, 2009

Despite Furor Over Brit's Execution, China Curbing Use of Death Penalty

The international furor over China's execution of a British man convicted of heroin-trafficking has drawn attention to the country's harsh criminal-justice system. The execution has sparked a diplomatic row between China and the U.K., but global condemnation will do little to provoke reform. China is the world leader in the use of the death penalty Amnesty International documented some 1,700 judicial killings in China last year, but the true total could be as much as three times that and Beijing makes no apologies for its hard line. In a statement issued after the execution, a Chinese court said drug crimes were "serious criminal offenses" demanding harsh punishment.

Yet, while China often complains that criticism by foreign governments amounts to outside interference in its internal affairs, there are signs that the rapidly modernizing country is curbing its use of the death penalty of its own accord. The reforms are modest, to be sure, but some observers see them as a rare bright spot amid an overall bleak trend for human rights in China.

Such progress came too late to save Akmal Shaikh, who on Dec. 29 became the 1st European to be executed in China in 50 years when he was given a lethal injection in the northwestern city of Urumqi. The 53-year-old Brit was convicted of smuggling 4 kg of heroin into China from Tajikistan. Shaikh's family had pleaded unsuccessfully for Chinese courts to take into account his history of mental illness. The human-rights group Reprieve documented numerous incidents of erratic and delusional behavior by Shaikh, including his recording of a song, entitled "Come Little Rabbit," that he apparently believed would lead to world peace. Reprieve says that drug traffickers preyed on Shaikh's hopes of becoming a pop star to dupe him into carrying drugs on a flight to Urumqi in September 2007.

The British government made dozens of appeals on Shaikh's behalf. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was "appalled and disappointed" that requests for clemency were denied and that he was "particularly concerned that no mental-health assessment was undertaken." The U.K. Foreign Office also summoned China's ambassador. China's Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism. At a briefing Tuesday spokeswoman Jiang Yu called complaints "groundless" and said China expressed "resolute opposition." She added that the U.K.'s response threatened to undermine the countries' bilateralrelations.

In the past the Chinese government has cited the need for deterrence and public support of the death penalty to justify its broad use of capital punishment. In online forums on Chinese websites, opinion over the Shaikh case tends to back the official stance. "We should stick to the Chinese law no matter what, instead of bending under the pressure from Western countries," wrote a commentator in a chat room on Tianya.com. "Otherwise, we would only damage the dignity of China's judicial system."

Indeed, the case will have little effect on how China views on the death penalty. "While there's some role for international opinion and international engagement with China on capital punishment, I think that the primary motive force for change and progress in the area of capital punishment in China is going to be internal," says Joshua Rosenzweig, Hong Kongbased manager of the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S. human-rights group.

And there are signs of change. In 2007 China's Supreme People's Court resumed reviewing all death-penalty cases following public anger at a number of questionable convictions, among them the case of a man who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for murdering his wife who later turned up alive. In the first half of 2008 the Supreme People's Court overturned about 15% of the death sentences that were forwarded to it, an official told the state-run China Daily newspaper.

Rosenzweig says the resumption of high court reviews is "probably the biggest area of progress in China in the past few years." According to a Dui Hua Foundation estimate, the number of prisoners executed annually may have fallen by as much as half from the 10,000 a year cited by a National People's Congress delegate in 2004. Even with such a decline China still puts to death more people than the rest of the world combined about 70% of the global total in 2008, according to Amnesty International.

The exact number is guarded as a state secret. Some scholars are urging more openness. Chen Guangzhong, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, wrote an article in the prominent Chinese publication Southern Weekend earlier this month arguing that the government should make execution statistics public. "Despite its sensitivity (the death penalty) is an area that has been able to be discussed to a certain extent within the Chinese media by legal experts," says Rosenzweig, "which is one reason why I think that's where the force for progress will come, from within China."

That's of little comfort to the family of Akmal Shaikh. On Wednesday they expressed "grief at the Chinese decision to refuse mercy" and thanked "all those who tried hard to bring about a different result," according to a statement released by Reprieve. But China's willingness to at least discuss the death penalty offers the slim hope that it in the future it will become less of a source of anger and dismay at home and abroad.

Source: TIME Magazine, December 30, 2009

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