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History > 2009 > UK > Politics > International (I)




China's execution of Akmal Shaikh

enrages British leaders

Gordon Brown, ministers and the opposition
condemn regime's treatment of Briton
said to have been mentally ill


Tuesday 29 December 2009
12.49 GMT

Jonathan Watts in Beijing
and Will Woodward


Gordon Brown and other senior British politicians have angrily condemned China for executing a British man said to have had mental problems. Akmal Shaikh, 53, was killed early this morning by lethal injection after being convicted of drug smuggling.

Despite frantic appeals by the Foreign Office for clemency, Shaikh was executed at 10.30am local time (2.30am British time) in Urumqi. Campaigners believe he is the first European in 58 years put to death in China.

Shaikh, a father of three from Kentish Town, north London, was found with 4kg of heroin in his suitcase in September 2007. His supporters say he had suffered a breakdown, was delusional and was tricked into carrying the drugs.

Britain is not planning any retaliation beyond criticism. The Chinese ambassador to London, Fu Ying, was summoned to the Foreign Office to hear first-hand the government's anger. The Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis was to protest about the execution and the Chinese government's decision to cancel an annual meeting between the two countries, scheduled for January in Beijing, where they were due to discuss China's human rights record.

Lewis said: "China cannot expect to receive the respect they yearn from the international community until they abide by minimum standards of human rights. Engagement with China is non-negotiable and any alternative strategy is simply not credible. But by being so clear in our public criticism of China's handling of this case we are demonstrating that it is not business as usual."

British ministers have been struck by the apparent near-universal support for the execution within China. David Miliband, the foreign secretary, writing on his blog, said: "We have said many times we welcome the economic rise of China and believe its integration into the world system is one of the great opportunities of the 21st century, not just one of the challenges. Events like those of today will only fuel the argument of those who say this is an impossible dream and that the value systems are just too different.

"I don't believe that. But it is a reminder of how different can be our perspective. We need to understand China (and the massive public support for the execution). They need to understand us."

Shaikh learned only yesterday that he would be killed today. He was informed by two cousins who had flown to China seeking a reprieve.

"We are deeply saddened, stunned and disappointed at the news of the execution of our beloved cousin Akmal," said Soohail and Nasir Shaikh in a statement.

The two men said they were "astonished" that the Chinese authorities refused to investigate their cousin's mental health on the grounds that the defendant ought to have provided evidence of his own fragile state of mind.

"We find it ludicrous that any mentally ill person should be expected to provide this, especially when this was apparently bipolar disorder, in which we understand the sufferer has a distorted view of the world, including his own condition."

Amid an angry exchange of words between London and Beijing, the British prime minister said: "I condemn the execution of Akmal Shaikh in the strongest terms and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted. I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken. At this time our thoughts are with Mr Shaikh's family and friends and I send them our sincere condolences."

Brown had raised the case on several occasions, including during a meeting with the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, at the Copenhagen summit and in a personal message in the past few days.

While British ministers have been careful not to promise any retaliation against the Chinese government, their statements demonstrate their anger at what they regard as Beijing's refusal to recognise Shaikh's basic human rights.

In Beijing the Chinese government said it resisted any interference in its judicial affairs. "We express strong dissatisfaction and opposition to the British reaction," said Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman. "We hope the British side will face this case squarely and not put new obstacles in the way of relations between Britain and China."

Chinese judges and lawyers receive instructions from the Communist party on their handling of political cases, but Jiang claimed the country's courts were independent. "China judicial independence brooks no interference." China treated citizens of all nations as equals in dealing with drug-related crime, said Jiang.

The Chinese embassy in London insisted "Shaikh's rights and interests were properly respected and guaranteed" and disputed British claims about his condition. "The concerns of the British side were duly noted and taken into consideration by the Chinese judicial authorities.

"Out of humanitarian consideration visas were granted to the two cousins of Mr Shaikh on Boxing Day and they were given access to meeting Mr Shaikh in China. As for his possible mental illness which has been much talked about, there apparently has been no previous medical record."

China executes three times as many people as the rest of the world's official executions put together – at least 1,718 in 2008 according to Amnesty International, although the real figure is likely to be much higher.

China has assured British officials that they have gone further than they do with other countries' prisoners to give advance warning of the execution, around three or four days, and allow the family access. Shaikh's cousins were allowed to see him for an hour and a half.

One senior figure closely involved with the case said China's reluctance to give ground was because many of those executed by the state were likely to have mental health problems and that Shaikh was "the tip of the iceberg".

Britain believes China is keen to move on from this case quickly but senior figures say it will inevitably colour dealings between the two countries for some time.

Sally Rowen, the legal director of the human rights group Reprieve, said: "The death of Akmal Shaikh is a sad indictment of today's world, and particularly of China's legal system. ... We at Reprieve are sickened by what we have seen during our work on this case."

Lewis told Radio 4's Today programme this morning: "It's a deeply depressing day for anyone with a modicum of compassion or commitment to justice in Britain and throughout the world."

He said it was "reprehensible" and "entirely unacceptable" that the execution had gone ahead without any medical assessment. "This execution makes me personally feel sick to the stomach but I'm not going to make idle threats.

"This morning is not the time for a kneejerk reaction. It's true we must continue to engage with China but it needs to be clear as that country plays a greater role in the world they have to understand their responsibility to adhere to the most basic standards of human rights. China will only be fully respected when and if they make the choice to join the human rights mainstream and incidents like this do not help the international community's respect or relationship with China."

Lewis said that there had been 27 ministerial representations to China about Shaikh's case in the last two years. Despite the increased international dialogue with China "all of those representations have been in vain and this is a very very different view of what constitutes universal human rights".

"Clearly Mr Shaikh has mental health problems. And whilst we differ with China anyway on the issue of the death penalty ... the biggest single issue here that causes us so much consternation is that they refused to even do a medical assessment knowing that there was evidence of mental health problems; that is what is unacceptable.

"In the context of a working relationship, a constructive positive relationship ... we expect our partners to behave differently and behave better."

Chinese media have yet to report the execution, but the state-run news agency Xinhua carried a statement by the supreme court defending its judgment. "The evidence was certain and the facts were clear," it said.

The court defended its decision to refuse UK requests for a mental examination. "There is no reason to cast doubt on Akmal Shaikh's mental status," it said.

Legal activists disputed the assertion that the government could not intervene in the court system. "China's judiciary is not independent, it is totally controlled by the government," said the civil rights lawyer Teng Biao.

"This case shows the hardline stance of the government. China now can ignore pressure from international society and won't compromise even a little on the issue of human rights."

Shaikh's lawyer for the supreme court review, Zhang Qingsong, said he was not allowed to meet his client.

Following vocal British criticism of China's stalling tactics at the Copenhagen climate conference this month, the rhetorical relations between the two nations have arguably hit a low not seen since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. But experts said the long-term impact would be small.

"The two sides are just posturing for their own citizens," said Wu Qiang of Tsinghua University. "Akmal Shaikh is only an isolated case. Unless the UK raises the issue to the EU level I don't think there will be big influence on relations."

The execution delighted China's nationalists. Online comment was overwhelmingingly favourable.

"Well done! The man deserves the death sentence. China has finally shown it can be tough in front of foreigners," noted a post under a TV clip about the news.

On the website ifeng.com, Chahu18 wrote: "I can't believe the British government condemned this action ... Do they support drug smuggling? Britons, you think it is still 1840 when you could use opium to harm Chinese people? I am with Chinese government this time!"

Reprieve said it had medical evidence that Shaikh believed he was going to China in 2007 to record a hit single that would usher in world peace. It said he was duped into carrying a suitcase packed with heroin on a flight from Tajikistan to Urumqi.

Reprieve said the last European to be executed in China was an Italian, Antonio Riva, who was shot by a firing squad in 1951, along with a Japanese man, Ruichi Yamaguchi, after being convicted of involvement in what China alleged was an American plot to assassinate Mao Zedong and other high-ranking Communist officials.

Shaikh's family thanked Brown, Miliband and other British ministers for their efforts and asked the media for "space to grieve".

    China's execution of Akmal Shaikh enrages British leaders, G, 29.12.2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/29/akmal-shaikh-execution-china-brown






Gordon Brown's role in release of Megrahi revealed

PM did not want man convicted of Lockerbie bomb to die in jail, Libya told


Wednesday 2 September 2009
The Guardian
Severin Carrell and Nicholas Watt
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 01.56 BST on Wednesday 2 September 2009.
It appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday 2 September 2009 on p1 of the Top stories section.
It was last updated at 02.10 BST on Wednesday 2 September 2009.


Gordon Brown and David Miliband were last night drawn directly into the furore over the release of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing when it emerged that Britain told Tripoli that the prime minister and foreign secretary did not want to see him die in prison.

In a major setback for Downing Street, which has insisted the release was entirely a matter for Edinburgh, it emerged that a Foreign Office minister intervened last February to make clear to Libya that Brown and Miliband hoped Abdelbaset al-Megrahi would not "pass away" in prison.

Amid warnings from Tripoli that allowing Megrahi to die in prison would amount to a "death sentence", Bill Rammell, then a Foreign Office minister, passed the message to Abdulati Alobidi, Libya's Europe minister, during a meeting in Tripoli.

His intervention was revealed yesterday in a note of a meeting which took place in Glasgow in March between Scottish officials and Alobidi. The note disclosed that the Libyan minister had said: "Mr Rammell had stated that neither the prime minister nor the foreign secretary would want Mr Megrahi to pass away in prison but the decision on transfer lies in the hands of Scottish ministers."

The disclosure that the prime minister had expressed a view on the release of Megrahi, which emerged when the British and Scottish governments released a series of documents relating to the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber, will be a severe blow to Brown. The prime minister has insisted that the British government had no involvement in the release of Megrahi, who was sent home on compassionate grounds by the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, last month.

In a sign of ministerial unease, it took Rammell almost two hours yesterday afternoon to respond to the publication of his reported remarks. Rammell, now a defence minister, made no attempt to deny his intervention when he released a brief statement which reiterated the British position that Megrahi's status was a matter for the Scottish authorities.

"Neither the Libyans nor the Scottish executive were left in any doubt throughout this entire process that this was a decision for the Scottish executive over which the UK government sought no influence," Rammell said. "I made it clear in all my dealings with the Libyans that the decision around Megrahi was exclusively one for the Scottish executive."

Later Rammell told the BBC he had conveyed Brown's feelings to the Libyans: "I did say that. But we need to put it in context. I was making it emphatically clear that this was a decision for Scottish ministers."

The documents also show Libya promised Megrahi would receive a low key homecoming. Scottish government notes of a meeting with Alobidi said: "Mr Alobidi said he would like to take this opportunity to assure the Scottish government that if Mr al-Megrahi were to be transferred to Libya that it would be done quietly and peacefully and away from the glare of the media. He noted that he understood such a transfer would need to be treated sensitively."

David Cameron last night seized on Rammell's intervention to demand a public inquiry into the release of Megrahi, claiming that Brown now stands accused of double dealing. He said: "For weeks [Brown] has been refusing to say publicly what he wanted to happen to Megrahi. Yet we learn, apparently, privately the message was being given to the Libyans that he should be released.

"I don't think we can now trust the government to get to the bottom of this so I think the time has come for an independent inquiry led by a former permanent secretary or former judge to find out what more papers need to be released so we can see what the British government was doing in our name."

The release of such a sensitive document by the Scottish government was designed to turn the spotlight on Brown as the SNP deals with the greatest crisis since it took power in Edinburgh in 2007.

The SNP is expected to lose a vote today on the Megrahi release in the Scottish parliament as Labour, the Tories and Liberal Democrats – emboldened by the US opposition to the release – mount their most serious challenge to the Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond. Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, said: "With the report of Bill Rammell's claim that neither Gordon Brown nor David Miliband wanted Megrahi to die in a Scottish jail, it seems the UK government were bending over backwards to show Libya they had no objection to Megrahi's release – which drives a coach and horses through Labour's position in Scotland."

The documents show Libya placed intense pressure on London and Edinburgh to release Megrahi. At one point Alobidi warned: "Death in custody would be akin to a death sentence without the benefit of the court and that 'they want a way out'."

No comment was forthcoming on the publication of the exchanges between the British and Scottish governments, a further sign Libya wants to draw a line under the controversy. Megrahi's health, meanwhile, is said to be deteriorating fast. The head of Libya's state information agency, Majid al-Dursi, described him as "very sick".

The papers released yesterday reveal that Scottish ministers were secretly told by the Libyans in January – far earlier than previously thought – that Megrahi might drop his appeal, which threatened to reveal damaging information about the police investigation into the bombing.

Megrahi dropped his appeal two days before MacAskill announced he would be freed, claiming he believed it would assist his release – a disclosure which has raised suspicions of a deal between Scottish and Libyan ministers. Those claims have been repeatedly denied by Scottish ministers.

    Gordon Brown's role in release of Megrahi revealed, G, 1.9.2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/01/gordon-brown-lockerbie-megrahi-libya






Government faces questions over Lockerbie bomber


August 22, 2009
The Times
From Times Online
Robin Henry


The Government are under fresh pressure this morning over an alleged trade deal behind the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

Opposition MPs say claims made by Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s son raise ‘serious questions’ over the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said negotiations over al-Megrahi’s release had always been tied up with the oil and gas business and Col Gaddafi himself also appeared on TV hugging Megrahi, who was this was this week released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds, and thanking ‘my friend’ Gordon Brown.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband has described any suggestion of a trade deal as a ‘slur’and insisted the Scottish government acted independently.

However the opposition are now calling for a Downing Street to answer the allegations directly.

Tory leader David Cameron has already written to Gordon Brown asking whether British ministers had intervened in the release of Megrahi, who is terminally ill with cancer.

Speaking on BBC’s Today programme this morning Shadow foreign minister David Lidington said: “I think there are some serious questions to be asked.”

“I am sure that the Libyans were pressing for Megrahi to be released and I think that what both Col Gaddafi and his son have said in the last 24 hours makes it even more important that Gordon Brown, our Prime Minister, answers the questions that David Cameron has put to him.

“It is very important, I think, for the reputation of our institutions of justice that it is made clear beyond any doubt that this was not connected with some political trade.”

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Edward Davey suggested that the UK and Scottish government may have been ‘willing partners’ in an unwritten diplomatic deal with Libya.

“They are dancing around each other, not criticising each other. I don’t think any pressure was actually put from Westminster on Holyrood. I think they are willing partners in this,”

“The new-found compassion is welcome on one level, but one does remember that there are billions of pounds of oil, gas, and bank contracts behind it.

“There is some evidence to suggest that, while there may not have been a written deal, we all know that diplomacy and trade operate in rather more subtle ways.”

Al-Megrahi, was released this week after serving less than eight-years in a Scottish prison for killing 270 people aboard a transatlantic airliner in 1988.

Despite calls from Gordon Brown and US president Barack Obama, he has been given a 'hero’s welcome' since arriving back in Libya.

Col Gaddafi embraced al-Megrahi at his home on Friday and thanked British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Queen Elizabeth for“encouraging” Scotland to release him.

He said: “This step is in the interest of relations between the two countries and of the personal friendship between me and them and will be positively reflected for sure in all areas of cooperation between the two countries.”

    Government faces questions over Lockerbie bomber, Ts, 22.8.2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article6806172.ece






Iran says British embassy officials will stand trial


July 3, 2009
From Times Online
Nico Hines, and David Charter in Stockholm


Iran’s top legislative body announced today that British embassy staff accused of inciting post-election violence will be forced to stand trial in Tehran.

The surprise move by the Guardian Council caused relations between London and the Iranian regime to sink still further after the two countries engaged in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions last week. Downing Street said the Government was concerned and seeking urgent clarification.

In a co-ordinated diplomatic move, EU nations responded by simultaneously summoning Europe’s Iranian ambassadors to explain the situation.

After rejecting British and Czech moves to pull out all European ambassadors from Tehran yesterday, the EU agreed a strongly-worded joint letter expected to be published tomorrow. The letter will threaten to implement visa restrictions unless the Iranian regime modifies its stance.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly blamed foreign powers, specifically Britain, for stirring up the protests that greeted his discredited re-election on June 12.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council which ratified the presidential election on Monday, said: “In these incidents, [the British] embassy had a presence, some people were arrested. Naturally they will be put on trial, they have made confessions.”

According to the British Government, seven of nine local staff originally detained by the Iranian authorities have now been released.

A Foreign Office spokesman denied that embassy staff took any part in demonstrations and demanded more information from Tehran.

“We are very concerned by these reports and are investigating,” a spokesman said. “Allegations that our staff were involved in fomenting unrest are wholly without foundation. We will be seeking an urgent explanation from the Iranians.”

Gordon Brown’s official spokesman added: “We are concerned about these reports and we are seeking clarification on this as a matter of urgency.”

Iran accused the embassy employees of instigating the riots and demonstrations that have convulsed Tehran for three weeks. Britain has rejected the allegations as baseless and demanded the immediate release of the staff still in detention.

Tehran announced more arrests in the post-election turmoil last night, detaining seven alleged provocateurs of violence it says were linked to Iranian exiles. The latest round of arrests underlines the authorities’ drive to portray protests as the work of outsiders rather than a reflection of widespread popular dismay.

Although the EU nations rejected the British proposal to recall all envoys last night officials said today that the option was still on the table.

The incoming Swedish presidency of the EU, which took the reins on Wednesday, has sought to strike a less aggressive diplomatic note, more in tune with Berlin and a number of other EU capitals.

Confirming a split among the EU powers, Cecilia Malmstrom, the Swedish Europe Minister, told The Times: “We are listening, there are different views.”

Most countries would prefer to wait until the G8 to increase the pressure on Tehran, but today’s developments will force a re-think for some governments.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, said Britain can count on total solidarity from France in its attempts to pressure Iranian authorities to release British embassy staff in Tehran.

He says France has always wanted to strengthen sanctions against the Iranian regime, “so that Iranian leaders will really understand that the path that they have chosen will be a dead end... our solidarity with our English friends is total”.

    Iran says British embassy officials will stand trial, Ts, 3.7.2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6629514.ece






UK expels Iran diplomats in tit for tat protest row


June 23, 2009
From Times Online

Jenny Booth Britain is to expel two Iranian diplomats as a tit-for-tat response after Iran forced the same number of British diplomats to leave, Gordon Brown revealed this afternoon.

"It is with regret that I should inform the House that Iran yesterday took the unjustified step of expelling two British diplomats over allegations which are absolutely without foundation," Mr Brown told MPs.

"In response to that action, we informed the Iranian ambassador today that we would expel two Iranian diplomats from their embassy in London. I am disappointed that Iran has placed us in this position."

The Foreign Office revealed that the Iranians had accused the expelled British diplomats of "activities inconsistent with their diplomatic status", which is diplomatic code for spying. It said the allegations were baseless.

"We think the Government of Iran is seeking to blame the UK and other outsiders for what is an Iranian reaction to an Iranian issue," said a spokesman. “This has a potential impact on our staff safety and is unacceptable. We have taken the decision to reciprocate.”

The latest exchange of hostilities marks a further deterioration in relations between Iran and the West.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, and President Ahmadinejad have both accused Britain of interfering in Iran’s internal affairs to foment the public unrest which has broken out since Mr Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election on June 12.

The Iranian state media routinely refer to Britain as the "Little Satan", a "fox" and the "most treacherous" of the Western powers, and report claims that British spies have been flooding into Iran in droves for up to two years.

The regime accuses western media outlets of parroting their government's line, and yesterday expelled the BBC's correspondent in Tehran.

Adding to the pressure, a large, government-orchestrated protest was arranged to take place outside the British embassy in Tehran today. It was then called off at the last minute, when the Interior Ministry said that the student protesters did not have a licence to demonstrate.

Mindful of the 444 day siege of the US embassy in Tehran by Iranian students during the revolution against the Shah in 1979, the Foreign Office was taking no chances and announced yesterday that the families of diplomats would be flown back to Britain. It also issued a travel alert warning Britons against all but essential travel to the Islamic republic.

As democracy protesters have taken to the streets of Iran's cities, a more discreet diplomatic struggle hs been played out in embassies and foreign ministries around the world.

France, Germany, Britain, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have all called in their Iranian ambassadors for a formal dressing down, to voice their fears that the presidential election was not fairly conducted, and their alarm at the ferocity at which Iran has been suppressing the protests.

Iran has responded in kind, calling in the British, Czech and Swiss ambassadors to express its own annoyance.

In the febrile atmosphere, Iranian news agencies reported this morning that Iran was recalling its ambassador to Britain, although the Iranian Foreign Ministry later denied this.

    UK expels Iran diplomats in tit for tat protest row, Ts, 23.6.2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article6563204.ece