Akmal Shaikh was not a prominent man. The 53-year-old father of three held no important positions. He was not a mogul, a president, or a celebrity. He is known now only because of his death, and the illness that led him to it. For Akmal Shaikh, executed by lethal injection yesterday morning, is the latest victim of China's draconian death penalty laws.
But this is not a straightforward tale of a hardened criminal. Drug smuggling is a serious crime by any nation's definition. Shaikh's case is unique because of two things: his lack of criminal history, and his long record of mental illness. According to family members, six unrelated witnesses, his GP and a consultant forensic psychiatrist , Shaikh suffered from bipolar disorder and exhibited delusional behavior.
Shaikh's illness took him on a strange journey. The London native left his home and family for Poland, where he spent 15 years living on the streets of Warsaw. There, people encountered and documented his unusual behavior. It is in Poland that Shaikh recorded "Come Little Rabbit," a song that he was convinced would become an international sensation and bring about world peace.
It is also in Poland that he met the drug smugglers that would set him on his course to death. His manic dreams of pop star fame made him easy prey for these criminals. Promising him international fame awaited him, they sent him to China with a suitcase in hand. That suitcase concealed 4 kg of heroin, enough to kill over 26,000 people.
A grave offense, and one that required stiff punishment. But China's treatment of this fragile man reveals an even graver defect in its justice system.
There are contradictory reports about the number of executions that take place in China per year. The US-based Dui Hua Foundation reports 5000 in 2009 , Amnesty International's figures are lower, 1718 in 2008. That number still makes China the world leader in executions. There are 68 capital offenses in China, many of which are nonviolent .
It is impossible to know how many innocent people are put to death in China, but the Shaikh case raises obvious questions about China's treatment of mentally ill prisoners. The Chinese courts twice refused a free psychiatric evaluation for Shaikh and ignored the medical history presented by his GP. No evaluation was ever conducted.
Despite 27 representations by the British government and his cooperation with Chinese authorities, Shaikh was killed at 2:30 GMT. The Chinese government has said it will not repatriate his remains.
The fate of Akmal Shaikh highlights the responsibility of democratic leaders to pressure China into reevaluating its abysmal human rights record. It is not enough for men like Gordon Brown to express their "strongest injustice" about this miscarriage of justice. This tragic death of a vulnerable man requires actions, not words.
The Chinese government believes that its execution of Shaikh is a matter of national sovereignty . A demonstration of sovereignty should never be an excuse for a demonstration of cruelty. The Shaikh case demonstrates the need for economic sanctions against China. Though it is premature to say that sanctions alone will prevent needless deaths, it is certain that if no action is taken, men and women like Akmal Shaikh will continue to die.
It is time for the man who even in his delusions desired world peace to receive the justice he was denied in life.