By Ng Han Guan
The Associated Press
URUMQI, China (AP) — China charged Akmal Shaikh with smuggling drugs and executed him on the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 29. But family and acquaintances say the 53-year-old Briton, originally from Pakistan, was mentally unstable and was lured to China from a life on the street in Poland by men playing on his dreams to record a pop song for world peace.
Shaikh first learned of his death sentence on Monday, Dec. 28 from his visiting cousins, who made a last-minute plea for his life.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown had spoken personally to China’s prime minister about his case, but Beijing didn’t relent.
“I believe we have done everything we possibly can,” said Ivan Lewis, a Foreign Office minister, after meeting with the Chinese ambassador in London late Monday.
Shaikh is the first European citizen to be executed in China in half a century.
Reprieve, a London-based prisoner advocacy, has been lobbying for clemency for Shaikh, said he was duped into trafficking drugs to China by men promising that he would attain fame with a hit single.
Shaikh was arrested in 2007 for carrying a suitcase with almost 9 pounds of heroin into China on a flight from Tajikistan. He told Chinese officials he didn’t know about the drugs and that the suitcase wasn’t his, according to Reprieve.
He was convicted in 2008 after a half-hour trial. In one court appearance during his trial and appeal process, the judges reportedly laughed at his rambling remarks.
“We strongly feel that he’s not rational and he needs medication,” one of Shaikh’s cousins, Soohail Shaikh, said. “We beg the Chinese authorities for mercy and clemency to help reunite this heartbroken family.”
The execution of Shaikh, who has no prior criminal record, is the latest in an extraordinary series of Chinese actions that have led to widespread outrage, including last Friday’s sentencing of a literary critic, who co-wrote a plea for political reform, to 11 years in prison.
“It certainly does send a message, intended or not, that China doesn’t really care what the international community thinks about how it handles criminal cases,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, research manager for the U.S.-based human rights group Dui Hua Foundation.
China had planned to tell Shaikh of his sentence 24 hours before it was to be carried out, Reprieve said. It’s not unusual for China to wait until the final hours to notify inmates of their fate.
But his cousins, who visited the prison hospital in western China broke the news first.
“He was obviously very upset on hearing from us of the sentence that was passed,” said Soohail Shaikh.
He told reporters at the Beijing airport late Monday that Shaikh used to be a hardworking family man. “Then we lost track of him.”
Last-minute appeals are almost never granted in China, which executes more people each year than all other countries combined.
“Drug smuggling is a grave crime. The rights of the defendant have been fully guaranteed,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference last week.
The cousins were given a bag of Shaikh’s belongings Monday.
Two British diplomats accompanied the cousins but said they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
“The Prime Minister has intervened personally on a number of occasions. He has raised the case with Premier Wen, most recently at the Copenhagen summit, and has written several times to President Hu,” said an e-mail from the British government.
Britain has accused Chinese officials of not taking Shaikh’s mental health concerns into account, with a proper psychiatric evaluation, as required by law.
“They’re not even pretending to protect his rights,” Rosenzweig said. “That really baffles me.” ♦
Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen and Cara Anna in Beijing and Meera Selva in London contributed to this report.