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China Executes British Citizen


China has executed a British man with reported mental health problems for drug smuggling, despite last minute appeals by the British government and his relatives.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned Akmal Shaikh's execution on Tuesday, saying he was "appalled and disappointed" that multiple requests for clemency were ignored.

Fifty-three-year-old Shaikh was arrested in China's Xinjiang region carrying about four kilograms of heroin in September 2007. He was sentenced to death and lost his appeal in China's Supreme Court.

Shaikh's case attracted support from the British government and many international rights groups, who intervened on the basis that Shaikh was mentally ill.

The London prisoner's rights group Reprieve provided Shaikh legal support. Reprieve spokeswoman Katherine O'Shea says media exposure prompted new witnesses to emerge who recalled Shaikh's delusional behavior.

"A lot of them related to the last few years of his life when he was down and out and homeless, and roaming the streets raving," said O'Shea. "He was raving about a song he'd written that was going to become a number one world hit and bring peace to the world, and it was at this time that he met the drug gang and they exploited his delusions and said that they had a gig [music performance] organized for him in China if he would only travel with them."

O'Shea says the witnesses signed their statements, which Reprieve sent to the Chinese embassy, but they were ignored.

China's Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that evidence of Shaikh's mental illness was "insufficient." After his execution, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the case was handled in accordance with law and Shaikh's rights were protected.

Jiang says China opposes Britain's reaction to Shaikh's execution, and hopes the case will not unnecessarily affect China-Britain relations.

Reprieve's O'Shea says Shaikh did not receive a medical evaluation while in prison.

She says the experience shows that the U.K. should not rely upon foreign governments to notify them when citizens are in trouble.

"One thing that we can take away from it is that we have to be more conscientious of finding British nationals who are on death row because China did not inform the U.K. that Akmal had been sentenced to death until a full year after that sentence had been handed down," she said.

O'Shea says Shaikh did not know he was to be executed until very late. Reprieve helped two of his cousins visit him this week and they said Shaikh was still hoping for a pardon until they told him that he was slated for execution.

Sophie Richardson is the Asia Advocacy director at Human Rights Watch in Washington D.C. She says Shaikh's case is especially troubling when it is considered alongside the state secrets charges that have been brought against a number of foreigners over the past few years.

"I think the Chinese government is showing that the kind of disregard for legal standards that it usually demonstrates with respect to its own population is slowly now being applied to non-Chinese citizens as well," she said.

Richardson says the official numbers on executions in China are difficult to ascertain, because the government considers them a state secret.

The human rights group Amnesty International says China executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined, and estimates there were more than 1,700 executions in the country last year.

Reprieve says Shaikh was the first European executed in China in over 50 years.

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