Britain strongly condemns China for execution of drug trafficker

By Patti Waldmeir, Jim Pickard and James Blitz
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Britain and China were engaged in a fierce diplomatic argument Tuesday after the Chinese government executed a British citizen for drug trafficking despite claims that he was mentally ill and unfit to stand trial.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the execution of Akmal Shaikh, a 53-year-old father of three, "in the strongest terms," adding that he was particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken.

Shaikh, who was caught smuggling heroin into China, was put to death by lethal injection Tuesday in Urumqi, the capital of China's westernmost province of Xinjiang. Shaikh's family issued a statement saying it was "ludicrous" that he was required to prove his own mental disability, which it characterized as bipolar disorder.

The British Foreign Office underscored its anger by formally summoning the Chinese ambassador in London for a confrontation with Ivan Lewis, one of its ministers. Lewis said after the meeting that he had told the ambassador in a "difficult conversation" that China had "failed in its basic human rights responsibilities."

British officials indicated privately that they were "realistic" about the case and did not think it would undermine the deeper political and trading relationship between Britain and China. China, however, reacted toughly, saying the British should withdraw their criticism if they did not want to damage bilateral relations.

Beijing said "strong resentment" about illegal drugs in the country was based on "the bitter memory of history," a reference to Britain's role in enforcing the importation of opium into China in the 19th century.

"It is the common wish of people around the world to strike against the crime of drug trafficking," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. China carried out more executions than the rest of the world combined last year, Amnesty International said.

Early signs of Chinese public opinion suggested widespread approval of the execution, with most respondents on, a popular Web site, supporting it.

Even in Britain, public opinion was at least somewhat divided, with readers of one popular daily posting support online for a column suggesting that the decision may have been justified.

-- Financial Times

Waldmeir reported from Beijing, Pickard and Blitz from London.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company