China Executes British Drug Smuggler, Sparking International Outcry

Chinese execution of an allegedly mentally-ill British citizen causes a furious online debate

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China's decision to execute British citizen Akmal Shaikh--convicted of heroin smuggling--over the objections of the British government is stirring strong emotions. The British government argued Shaikh should not have faced the death sentence, claiming he was mentally ill and may have been exploited by other smugglers. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's condemnation of the execution was followed by a swift Chinese retort asserting China's judicial sovereignty and the importance of halting drug trafficking. The high-level political furor is mirrored online. While many are outraged by the decision, others think the Chinese argument merits a second look.

  • Time for China to Join the Civilized Nations "Mr Shaikh's death," writes the Telegraph's George Pitcher in a scathing response, "doubtless will be of little consequence to the Chinese authorities, who put some 1,700 people to death during the past year alone. The scale of this judicial murdering machine is difficult to grasp and even puts the United States to shame." He calls for the European Union to speak out against China, and impose "significant and hurtful" sanctions "until China brings its legislature into line with European criminal sentencing." His reasoning: if "China ... aspires to take a respectable place on the international stage ... Beijing must know, today and unequivocally, that putting to death a mentally ill man in possession of a British passport is no way to go about its civilising aspirations."
  • Carelessly Unfair The Guardian's Clive Stafford Smith, who earlier argued that "some less charitable people cottoned onto Akmal's vulnerability and made him their unwitting drug mule," is struck by the Chinese government's declaration that the number of lives potentially lost through the large amount of heroin Akmal carried justified the execution. Crunching the numbers to check the government's figures, Smith finds a discrepancy and thinks China has exaggerated: "uch exaggeration in a matter of life or death speaks unfavourably of the 'cautious approach' that the Chinese claim to be taking on capital punishment, along with their 'careful reforms.'"
  • U.S. Hands Tied by Own Policy "Unfortunately," writes Americablog's Chris Ryan, "the US is unable to join the criticism since the death penalty is so widely used."
  • Member of British Public: Problems with Both Governments Scottish blogger Caron thinks "murder carried out by the state of someone who is mentally ill takes brutality to a whole new level," and takes issue with several curiosities of the case. First, "as far as I can see," she writes, "all the Foreign Office and Gordon Brown did was to ask nicely for the Chinese Government to show clemency ... I want to know exactly what went on and how much diplomatic pressure was put on China." She also finds the Chinese statement, which states "strong dissatisfaction and opposition to the British government's unreasonable criticism of the case" sickening: "you can sense the swaggering of the bully in those words," Caron says, likening the Chinese stance on human rights to its obduracy on climate change. Finally, Caron wonders whether, if Akmal Shaikh had received proper mental health care under the British system, " he [would] ever have been in such a vulnerable state that he was duped into smuggling the drugs," and suggests neither Shaikh nor his case got the attention they deserved.
  • Telegraph Commenters: Voices of Dissent Commenters responding to an open discussion prompt at the Telegraph's website offer some dissenting opinions. "I understand that the Chinese do have a drug problem," points out commenter Mark Denton, "... so maybe their approach to those who take part in this evil trade is correct." Nikos Retsos adds that "if Akmal Shaikh was an Afghan, and he was executed for drug trading, Mr. Brown would have lauded the Afghan government for doing everything to curb the scourge of drug trade." A user named Tiger agrees that "if you break the law in any country you are (quite rightly) subject to that country's laws and punishments." Yet a number of commenters side with the official British position as well, one named Shane arguing that "when the trafficker is a foreign man any civilized country will consider the relations between the countries and avoid death sentence, especially when it is claimed that the man is mentally ill." He thinks the Chinese decision not to commute the sentence to life imprisonment shows the "scant respect [members of the Chinese government] have for British sensitivities."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.