UK and China clash as Beijing executes mentally ill Briton

By Dipankar De Sarkar, IANS,

London : Relations between China and Britain – at a low over climate change – worsened Tuesday amid an angry exchange of words over China’s execution of a Briton who London says was mentally ill.

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The foreign ministry in London summoned the Chinese ambassador to give what one newspaper described as a “dressing down” over the execution of Akmal Shaikh as Britain reacted with fury over China’s refusal to heed personal pleas for pardon from Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Shaikh, a father of two who was arrested at Urumqi airport in September 2007 with four kg of heroin, was executed with a lethal injection early Tuesday although he was widely thought to have been suffering from bipolar disorder with delusions of achieving pop stardom through a song about rabbits.

Prime Minister Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband led strong condemnations of the Chinese action.

“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. I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken,” Brown said.

Miliband said “specific concerns about the individual in this case were not taken into consideration despite repeated calls by the Prime Minister, Ministerial colleagues and me. These included mental health issues, and inadequate professional interpretation during the trial.”

The European Union had also repeatedly raised health concerns, and the British government had made 27 ministerial representations to Chinese authorities.

China hit back by claiming its judiciary was independent of government control and citing “the bitter memory” of the 19th century Opium Wars when Beijing tried to stop British colonial trade in the narcotic.

In Beijing, Chinese government spokesman Jiang Yu said: “We express strong dissatisfaction and opposition to the British reaction. We hope the British side will face this case squarely and not put new obstacles in the way of relations between Britain and China.”

“China judicial independence brooks no interference,” Jiang claimed.

China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper said Shaikh’s case was sensitive “because it brings back the black memory of the Opium War started by the British more than a century ago that dragged our country through a lengthy nightmarish period”.

British Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis said London had provided evidence of “very bizarre behaviour” by Shaikh over a long period of time, adding Beijing’s refusal to carry out a medical examination was “reprehensible”.

The exchange of words came after Brown personally raised the issue with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao at the Copenhagen climate change summit earlier this month – the meet ended with British ministers publicly blaming Beijing for its failure to agree to an ambitious deal.

The anti-death-penalty organisation Reprieve said it had medical evidence that Shaikh believed he was going to China in 2007 to record a hit single that would usher in world peace. It said he was duped into carrying a suitcase packed with heroin on a flight from Tajikistan to Urumqi.

According to Reprieve, Shaikh’s first trial lasted only 30 minutes. At the second trial, judges laughed as Shaikh gave a rambling 50-minute speech but they dismissed a request by the British consulate for a mental examination.

The Guardian said that although “rhetorical relations” between the two nations have hit a low not seen since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, experts said the long-term impact would be small.

The last European citizen to be executed by China was an Italian in 1951 after Beijing claimed he was part of an American plot to assassinate Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.