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British man facing execution in China: Amnesty issues urgent appeal

Amnesty International today (20 October) issued an urgent appeal on behalf of a British man who could be executed in China within days. Akmal Shaikh, a 53-year-old father of five from north London who is believed to be mentally ill, was sentenced to death for drug-smuggling on 29 October. He has now lost his appeal and China provides no clemency procedures for condemned prisoners after they have exhausted their appeals through the courts.

Amnesty is asking people to go to and write urgently to the Chinese authorities, calling on the Supreme People's Court not to execute Akmal Shaikh. They are also urging the authorities to ensure that Akmal Shaikh has access to his family and any medical attention he may require, including psychiatric evaluation.

Akmal Shaikh's family and lawyer have argued that he has suffered for many years with mental instability and is likely to have a bipolar disorder. Despite these claims, the Chinese authorities have refused to allow Akmal Shaikh to be examined by a doctor. Forensic psychologist Dr Peter Shaapveld, who travelled to China specifically to meet Shaikh, was not allowed to meet him. After investigating through family members and other channels, however, he concluded that "the evidence clearly points to the fact that Mr. Shaikh was and/or is suffering from a severe mental disorder."

According to Article 18 of China's Criminal Law, a mental patient who commits a crime, and has not completely lost the ability to recognise or control his own conduct at the time, still has criminal responsibility but may be given a lighter punishment.

Amnesty International UK Campaigns Director Tim Hancock said:

“Akmal Shaikh should not be executed. There’s evidence that he may have a serious mental disorder, which could warrant a less extreme sentence under Chinese law. The Chinese authorities should allow a psychiatric evaluation immediately.

“China’s Supreme People’s Court has it in their power to stop this execution. We’re calling on people to write to them immediately, urging them to intervene.

“The death penalty is always wrong, the ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment. But in countries like China, where the prisoner is highly unlikely to have received a fair trial, its use is even more deplorable.”

No one who is sentenced to death in China receives a fair trial in accordance with international human rights standards. Confessions are accepted even when prisoners tell the court that they were extracted under torture; other prisoners have had to prove themselves innocent, rather than be proven guilty. Many people have limited access to legal counsel when they are put on trial.

Reprieve’s Executive Director Clare Algar said:
“Sadly, our investigations show that Akmal Shaikh is on death row because he is mentally ill. Since the case was ‘tweeted’ by Stephen Fry, yet more witnesses have contacted Reprieve to offer testimony confirming Akmal’s bizarre behaviour when he lived in London. Thankfully there is a mental illness defence in China; we hope that Amnesty’s Urgent Action will encourage the Supreme People’s Court to consider it and spare Akmal’s life.”

The death penalty is applicable to approximately 68 offences in China, including non-violent ones. China executes more people each year than any other country and while official statistics remain secret, Amnesty’s figures show that China executed at least 1,718 people in 2008, nearly three-quarters (72%) of the world’s executions. At least 7,003 people were sentenced to death in China last year. These figures represent a minimum - the real figures are undoubtedly much higher. Amnesty is urging China to introduce a legal procedure for clemency and to eliminate the death penalty for all non-violent crimes, with a view to establishing a moratorium on the death penalty.

In January 2007, China restored the Supreme People's Court (SPC) review for all death sentences. All death sentences must now be reviewed by the SPC, which has the power to approve, revise or remand death sentences. Chinese authorities have reported a drop in executions since the SPC resumed this review. Nevertheless, the application of the death penalty remains shrouded in secrecy in China. Without access to such information it is impossible to make a full and informed analysis of death penalty developments in China, or to say if there has been a reduction in its use.

Akmal Shaikh was detained at the airport in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang region, on 12 September 2007, when he arrived on a flight from Tajikistan. He was accused of carrying four kilogrammes of heroin in his luggage. According to Hong Kong and international media, Shaikh had been tricked by a criminal gang in Poland, where he had been living. Gang members had promised to introduce him to people in the music business, who would assist him with his music career, and arranged for him to travel to Kyrgyzstan and then to China; they asked him carry the luggage that contained the heroin. Believing that he was going to be able to launch a career as a pop star, he boarded a plane for China, carrying the piece of luggage.

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