Spotlight on Chinese executions
Beijing - Every day, an average of 10 or more people are executed in China, according to human rights groups. The exact number is considered a state secret, but what isn't secret is that Briton Akmal Shaikh became one of them on Tuesday.
Hours before his death, the 53-year-old had no idea he was going to die after his 2008 conviction for heroin smuggling. Two cousins who travelled from London for a final prison visit with Shaikh in Urumqi - the capital of the far western region of Xinjiang, where the execution took place -had to tell him the news the day before he was put to death by lethal injection.
He refused to believe it and still held out hope for a pardon, they said.
His execution made headlines for several reasons. It was the first execution of a European national in China in 50 years.
Prosecution of mentally ill
It threw a renewed spotlight on the frequent use of the death penalty in China, which carries out 72% of the world's executions, according to the human rights group Amnesty International.
And it also raised the curtain on the Chinese judicial system's deficiencies in prosecuting the mentally ill.
Shaikh's family said he suffered for years from bipolar disorder and, therefore, should not be held responsible for the crime, but no mental evaluation was carried out by Chinese authorities.
According to Chinese law, mentally ill people are not responsible for their crimes. Article 18 of China's penal code also allows perpetrators who are only partially capable of being aware of their crimes or controlling their actions to receive a reduced sentence.
However, legal experts said it remained unclear when courts in China must order psychological evaluations and China's judicial system has no legal protections for such defendants.
Britons reacted with outrage at the news that although the judge in the case had made fun of Shaikh's confused statements in the case, he deemed a psychological evaluation unnecessary.
PM personally intervened
London psychologist Peter Schaapveld, who travelled to Urumqi, was denied a meeting with Shaikh. The personal intervention of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and international calls to stop the execution also came to nothing.
The execution came at a time of already low relations between London and Beijing after Britain accused China of torpedoing a meaningful agreement on climate change at this month's UN-sponsored summit in Copenhagen.
China's government warned Britain not to "politicise" Shaikh's case after the Supreme Court in Beijing turned down his appeal this year, calling evidence of his mental illness "insufficient".
Shaikh's cousin Suhail Shaikh saw the situation differently after meeting on Monday with his relative.
"It was apparent to us that he was suffering from a mental illness," Suhail Shaikh said in an interview with Britain's Daily Mail newspaper.
"The things he was saying were not the things you'd expect a normal person facing the death sentence to say."
Evidence supporting the family's claim was also unearthed by British media, who reported that Akmal Shaikh, who ran a taxi firm in London until 2005, appeared to have been in a downhill spiral over the past several years, both socially and psychologically.
His last place of residence was Poland, where the father of five was jobless and homeless.
Obvious signs of illness
Acquaintances there said it was obvious that Akmal Shaikh suffered from mental illness. Among other things, he sent hundreds of nonsensical e-mails to the British embassy in Warsaw, addressed to former British prime minister Tony Blair, musician Paul McCartney and former US president George W Bush.
Akmal Shaikh also recorded a song in Poland called Run Little Rabbit, which he wrote and was convinced would be a hit.
The British-based prisoners rights group Reprieve, which championed Akmal Shaikh's case, said he believed his song would lead to world peace.
It released the recording on YouTube in which Akmal Skaikh sings the lyrics, largely off-key: "Come, little rabbit, come to me. Come, little rabbit, let it be. Come, little rabbit, come and pray."
The song and his hopes for an international recording career eventually led him to fall into the hands of drug smugglers, Reprieve said.
It said they persuaded him in 2007 to board a plane to Urumqi with a suitcase with more than 4kg of heroin inside by promising him a singing career in China.
His execution was met with outrage on Tuesday by the British government and human rights groups.
Brown said he was "appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted. I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken."
Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia programme director, had harsher criticism for China:
"Much information about the death penalty is considered a state secret, but Mr Shaikh's treatment seems consistent with what we know from other cases: a short, almost perfunctory trial where not all the evidence was presented and investigated, and the death penalty applied to a non-violent crime."