Britain-China ties tense

2009-12-30 09:43

London - Britain called in China's ambassador to vent its fury at the "unacceptable" execution of a mentally ill Briton, as the affair triggered a sharp chill between London and Beijing.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was "appalled and disappointed" that China ignored repeated appeals to show mercy to Akmal Shaikh, who was said to have suffered from bipolar disorder.

"I made clear that the execution of Mr Shaikh was totally unacceptable and that China had failed in its basic human rights responsibilities," junior foreign minister Ivan Lewis said after "difficult" talks with China's envoy.

Shaikh, a 53-year-old father-of-three, was executed on Tuesday for drug smuggling despite ministerial lobbying that continued almost up to his death.

Lewis, who had summoned China's ambassador Fu Ying late on Monday to make a failed last-minute appeal, and then again on Tuesday, protested that Shaikh's medical condition was not taken into account.

"China needs to understand it will only ever achieve full respect around the world when it subscribes to basic standards of human rights," he told Sky News television.

But in Beijing officials remained defiant. "China has fully protected the defendant's litigation rights," foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said.

"We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Britain's accusations. We hope the British side will face this case squarely and not create new obstacles for China-Britain relations."

Britain has vast trade and economic ties with China, and has long underlined the need to engage closely with the emerging global powerhouse despite criticism notably of China's human rights record.

But its ties with Beijing have also been more complicated than with many other countries, due to historical issues including the 1997 return of Hong Kong to China.

More recently Britain risked Chinese ire in September by sending Lewis to Tibet, where he underlined London's support for greater Tibetan autonomy.

Then at this month's Copenhagen climate summit environment minister Ed Miliband said China had led a group of countries that "hijacked" the negotiations.

The dispute over Shaikh's execution will only add to tensions.

Shaikh was arrested in September 2007 in Urumqi in far western China with four kilograms (nine pounds) of heroin, but campaigners say a criminal gang duped him into carrying the drugs.

He was the first national from a European Union country to be executed in China in 50 years, according to London-based charity Reprieve, which had been providing him with legal counsel.

The Chinese embassy in London stressed Shaikh was convicted for "serious drug trafficking", adding: "As for his possible mental illness, which has been much talked about, there apparently has been no previous medical record."

British journalist and China expert Jonathan Fenby noted that a Chinese embassy statement referred to the "strong resentment" felt by the Chinese public to drug traffickers was in part based on "the bitter memory of history".

"If you spoke to the average 20 or 30-something Chinese person they would say the British forced us to take opium. It is established as part of the historical story," said Fenby.

Britain's anger was backed up by the 27-nation EU, which said it "deeply regrets the fact that China has not heeded the repeated calls by the EU and (Britain) for the death sentence passed against Mr Shaikh to be commuted".

Reprieve branded Shaikh's death a "sad indictment" of China's legal system.

"China's refusal to even allow a proper medical evaluation is simply disgusting," said Reprieve's director Clive Stafford Smith.

Amnesty International said the execution was "a slap in the face" of the international community," and demonstrated Chinese authorities' "disregard for the rule of law and their human rights obligations".

But China's state-run English-language Global Times on Wednesday defended the execution.

"The frenzy whipped up by the British diplomats and media didn't evoke much sympathy as drug trafficking is a menace worldwide, and abiding by the law of the country one is in is a commonly accepted principle," the paper said.

"Had Akmal's death sentence been commuted, other offenders caught and found guilty of drug trafficking might have raised a similar plea and dubiously claimed 'mental instability', thereby weakening the spirit of legal independence."

The paper added: "Taking a life is a difficult decision. But uneven sentences that discriminate between foreigners and Chinese would be a blow to impartiality of justice, which is basic to the foundation of any country."