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China and Britain clash over execution
Maxim Duncan - URUMQI, China - Tue Dec 29, 2009

URUMQI, China (Reuters) - China executed a Briton on Tuesday caught smuggling heroin, prompting a British outcry over what it said was the lack of any mental health assessment.


Beijing called the British criticism groundless interference in its judicial sovereignty.

Relatives of Akmal Shaikh, 53, and the British government had appealed for clemency, arguing the former businessman suffered from bipolar disorder, or manic depression. China's Supreme Court rejected the appeal, saying there was insufficient evidence of mental illness.

Shaikh was the first European citizen executed in China since 1951, Western rights groups say.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the execution, carried out in Urumqi, capital of the far-west region of Xinjiang, saying he was "appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted."

"I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken," he said in a statement.

British Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis summoned China's ambassador in London, Fu Ying, to protest at the execution.

"I made clear that the execution of Mr Shaikh was totally unacceptable and that China had failed in its basic human rights responsibilities in this case...," Lewis said in a statement after what he described as a "difficult conversation."

China rejected the British criticism.

"Nobody has the right to speak ill of China's judicial sovereignty," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. "We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition over the groundless British accusations."

Shaikh was executed by injection, China's official Xinhua news agency reported. His family said it was "stunned and disappointed" and criticized China's stance on his mental health.

INTERNATIONAL CRITICISM

The European Union and France both condemned the execution.

The 27-nation EU's presidency said it deeply regretted that China had not heeded repeated calls from the EU and Britain for Shaikh to be spared the death penalty.

Human rights group Amnesty International said Shaikh's execution "highlights the injustice and inhumanity of the death penalty, particularly as it is implemented in China."

Lewis told BBC radio the execution made him feel "sick to the stomach," but said Britain "must and will continue to engage with China."

China executes more people than any other country, with about 1,718 executions in 2008, far surpassing Iran at 346 and the United States at 111, according to Amnesty International. China does not release an official count of its executions.

The case could increase Chinese resentment over what Beijing often calls "interference" in its internal affairs, mindful of humiliating defeats by Britain during the Opium Wars of the 1800s.

"We hope that the British side can view this matter rationally, and not create new obstacles in bilateral relations," Jiang said.

Britain is China's third-largest trade partner in Europe, with total trade of $45 billion in 2008.

British economic ties with China have strengthened under Brown, although the two nations recently criticized one another over the troubled Copenhagen climate change negotiations.

Heroin use is a major problem in Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia. The majority Muslim region was convulsed by ethnic violence and protests in July, with further protests in September after widespread panic over alleged syringe attacks.

Shaikh's defenders, including British rights group Reprieve which lobbies against the death penalty, say he was duped into smuggling heroin by a gang who promised to make him a pop star.

Arrested in 2007, Shaikh, a Muslim, had had his last appeal rejected by a Chinese court on December 21. Reprieve posted on the Internet a recording Shaikh made of a song, "Come Little Rabbit," which it said he believed would be an international hit and help bring about world peace.

(Additional reporting by K.J. Kwon in Beijing; Tim Castle in London and Marcin Grajewski in Brussels; writing by Lucy Hornby, Chris Buckley and Adrian Croft; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Shaikh's relatives lament Government's 'powerlessness'
Relatives of north London man Akmal Shaikh said the Government's failure to prevent his execution in China showed Britain's "powerlessness in the world".

The criticism came as a diplomatic war of words broke out between London and Beijing over the execution of convicted drug smuggler Shaikh, who is believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder.

Shaikh, a British citizen who lived in Kentish Town, was killed by lethal injection on Tuesday (UK time) despite pleas from his family, human rights groups and the UK Government for his mental health to be considered.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had telephoned Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to urge him to halt the execution, said he was "appalled and disappointed" at the failure to grant clemency.

Chinese officials in both capitals hit back with an insistence that Shaikh had "no previous medical record" of mental illness and a warning not to meddle in China's judicial affairs.

Some 27 separate representations were made at ministerial level on Shaikh's behalf to the Chinese authorities as intense efforts were made to spare his life.

But in a letter to The Guardian, his cousins Amine and Ridden Shaikh said the British government had shrunk from confronting China over the case prior to the execution because of fears it could harm the UK's economic interests in the country.

"Britain's economic dependence far outweighs these 'individual cases'," they wrote.

The letter continued: "Did the British government pull out its diplomats in protest? Did it have a hard-hitting strategy to persuade the Chinese authorities to change their decision? This is an example of Britain's powerlessness in the world."

Shaikh, 53, who was arrested in Urumqi, north west China, in September 2007, was convicted of smuggling 4kg (8.8lb) of heroin into the country.

Copyright 2009 The Press Association. All rights reserved.

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