China's shameful execution poses new challenges

Beijing continues to regard human rights with contempt

The shameful execution of Akmal Shaikh by China puts ministers and human rights groups in uncharted territory. The world's greatest user of capital punishment had not executed a European citizen since 1951. Attempting to win over a government that, unlike the United States, does not regard human rights as a legitimate concept represented a formidable challenge for all involved.

As did attempting to engage with a judicial system that remains cloaked in secrecy. So opaque is Chinese justice that it remains unclear whether Shaikh was killed by lethal injection or by firing squad.

Some bloggers have suggested that the British government did not do enough to persuade China to grant clemency. Iain Dale writes: "I am sorry, but Ivan Lewis is not a name to strike fear into the hearts of the Chinese government." That may be so, but we do know that Britain made 27 representations to China over the case and that Gordon Brown personally raised the case with Wen Jiabao.

Meanwhile, in an extraordinary intervention, Leo McKinstry, writing in the Daily Mail, favourably contrasts Beijing's "tough action" with Britain's "enfeebled" approach to drug smuggling.

He writes:

In contrast to New Labour's policy of appeasement and surrender, the Chinese government acts vigorously to defend its people from the misery caused by the drugs trade.

My regret is not over tough action by Beijing, but the fact that we in this country do not possess the moral clarity or strength of purpose to deal ruthlessly with drug peddlers [sic] and other enemies of our society.

He dismisses the evidence that Shaikh's apparent mental illness allowed him to be duped into smuggling heroin as "excuse-making". I won't pretend, and few should, to have the knowledge required to make a medical as well as a moral judgement on the case. But in his medical report on Shaikh, Dr Peter Schaapveld, a London-based clinical and forensic psychologist, concluded with "99 per cent certainty" that he was either bipolar or schizophrenic.

Combined with the standard arguments against the death penalty, such evidence represented an unassailable case for a stay of execution.

Gordon Brown and David Cameron deserve credit for unambiguously condemning China's behaviour in their respective statements this morning. Let us hope they will not be given cause to do so again.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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