Killing the mentally ill

Akmal Shaikh, a man from north London, is currently facing execution, in the next few days, in China. There’s strong evidence that he may be mentally ill, suffering from bipolar disorder: he had reportedly left London to set up an airline in Poland, despite having neither the requisite money nor any aviation experience. He had travelled to China with people who had convinced him that they could make him a pop star in Kyrgystan. These same people allegedly gave him the bag, containing four kilos of heroin, with which he was arrested at the airport.

Yet despite a raft of international legal rulings banning the execution of people with mental illness, the Chinese authorities have not only sentenced him to death, but have upheld the sentence on appeal, and refused him a psychiatric evaluation.

Today, Amnesty launched a web appeal – at www.amnesty.org.uk/deathpenalty – urging people to write to the last people that can stop the execution, China’s Supreme People’s Court. The SPC reviews all death sentences in China. And there’s a compelling case for this one to be stopped: Article 18 of China's Criminal Law says that a mental patient who commits a crime, and has not completely lost the ability to recognise or control his own conduct at the time, may be given a lighter punishment.

This is not an issue that’s unique to China. Only last month, we published a report exposing the Japanese death penalty system and how it is driving death row prisoners to mental illness. Yet no safeguards exist there to stop mentally-ill prisoners being executed. We highlighted the case of Hakamada Iwao, a man who has been held on death row for an astonishing 41 years, with an understandable impact on his mental health.

And there is a huge body of information about the USA’s continuing executions of people with very serious mental health problems. In January 2004, for instance, the State of Arkansas executed Charles Singleton, a man who was said to be "seriously deranged without treatment" and "arguably incompetent with treatment." It was only during an episode of "drug-induced sanity" that the state scheduled his execution.

At Amnesty we oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as the ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment. It’s a punishment from which there can be no reprieve – a particular issue in a country like China, where people are highly unlikely to receive a fair trial. But I’d implore even those who agree with the death penalty to look at Akmal Shaikh’s case and ask themselves whether this man really deserves to be executed.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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