Wednesday, December 23, 2009

China's supreme court confirms execution of British man with mental illness convicted of drug smuggling

From The Guardian in the UK:

A British man is facing execution in China within days after the country's supreme court today refused to set aside his death sentence.

Akmal Shaikh, 53, from Kentish Town, north London, will be put to death on 29 December after a Chinese court convicted him of heroin smuggling.

In a last-ditch bid to halt the execution ‑ which will either be by firing squad or lethal injection ‑ Gordon Brown is expected to plead directly with the Chinese government for leniency this week, the Guardian understands.

Shaikh's supporters had hoped the possibility that he suffers from a mental illness would help persuade China's supreme court to show leniency. But yesterday it refused the appeal from the father-of-three, plunging Britain and China into a diplomatic row.

In a statement the Foreign Office said it was "deeply concerned" at the news and behind the scenes UK officials were considering what options they had. Brown has already asked for the death sentence to be commuted, only to have his appeal rebuffed by China's supreme court.

Shaikh was convicted in November 2008 of drug smuggling and sentenced to death. He was originally arrested in September 2007 in Urumqi, north-west China. His legal team say they have unearthed evidence that he was suffering from a mental illness, namely a bipolar disorder, which may have caused his strange behaviour.

As part of his case, the charity Reprieve commissioned a report from Dr Peter Schaapveld, a forensic psychologist, which said it was probable that Shaikh's strange behaviour was "influenced or caused by" his mental illness.

Shaikh's lawyers say he was set up by drug smugglers who exploited a condition which left him vulnerable and delusional. Reprieve's director Clive Stafford Smith said: "The prime minister should speak directly with [Chinese] President Hu, emphasise that Chinese compassion would be viewed as a great favour to the British people, and note the consistent view of Chinese and British doctors that a full mental health assessment is vital to assess how Akmal's illness contributed to the offence.

"I just spoke to Akmal's brother about this terrible news, and it is impossible to imagine what Akmal's family are going through this holiday season. This is no time for pride – they beg the Chinese authorities to show compassion and take Akmal's mental health problems into account."

The Chinese supreme court's upholding of the death sentence has put British officials under intense pressure to find a way in the next week to convince Beijing to halt the execution. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: "We can confirm that Chinese authorities have informed us that Akmal Shaikh is due to be executed on 29 December. We are alarmed and deeply concerned at this news.

"This is obviously very distressing news for the family. Our thoughts are with them at this difficult time, and we continue to provide them with support. We will be using the next few days to renew and intensify our appeal to the Chinese authorities for clemency. The prime minister and other ministers have been and remain closely engaged.

"We deeply regret that mental health concerns had no bearing on the final judgment despite requests by Mr Shaikh's defence lawyer and repeated calls by the prime minister, ministers, members of the opposition, as well as European Union."

Shaikh was arrested after a suitcase he was carrying was allegedly found to contain 4kg of the drug, with a value of £250,000. Actor Stephen Fry, who suffers from bipolar disorder, is among those supporting calls for the Chinese government to spare Shaikh's life.

Stafford Smith said Shaikh's chances of avoiding a death sentence may be hampered by the row between China and the UK and US at the climate change summit last week in Copenhagen: "Britain and the US chose to make China the scapegoat at Copenhagen which, given US intransigence over the past decade, might be viewed as hypocritical. We very much hope that Akmal Shaikh does not become a victim of the regrettably cold political climate that has resulted."