Insults fly as UK hits out at China execution

Diplomatic niceties vanish as Britain expresses disgust – and Beijing bristles
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The Independent Online

Beijing hit back furiously yesterday at Britain's condemnation of the execution of a mentally ill Londoner who relatives say was duped into smuggling heroin into China.

After 27 separate appeals and days of conciliatory words aimed at persuading China of Akmal Shaikh's case, Gordon Brown yesterday changed gear to strongly criticise the execution.

When it emerged that last-minute entreaties at a tense Foreign Office meeting with the Chinese ambassador had failed to stop Mr Shaikh's death by lethal injection yesterday morning, Mr Brown said he was "appalled and disappointed" at China's conduct, and particularly at the failure to allow a medical assessment of the Briton.

But a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman later slammed Britain for meddling in Beijing's affairs, and insisted that normal legal procedures had been followed. "Nobody has the right to speak ill of China's judicial sovereignty," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. "We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition over the groundless British accusations."

The Chinese ambassador, Fu Ying, was summoned to the Foreign Office yesterday for a dressing-down over the execution. Afterwards, Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis, who admitted that the meeting had been "difficult", said he had told her: "China has failed in its basic human rights responsibilities." He had made a final attempt to change Beijing's stance at a tense meeting with Ms Fu on Monday night.

The British government realised that attempts to persuade China to show mercy were doomed two days before Mr Shaikh's death. As London stepped up the diplomatic pressure, ministers sensed that Chinese officials were becoming increasingly hostile to their pleas for clemency.

Mr Brown repeatedly raised the case with China's Premier Wen Jiabao, once during the Copenhagen summit on climate change earlier this month. He also wrote several times to President Hu Jintao, most recently at the beginning of this week.

The decision to brush off calls for clemency is the latest sign of China flexing its diplomatic and political muscle, after the jailing of top dissident Liu Xiaobo on Christmas Day and a tough line on negotiations at the Copenhagen talks, where critics including British Climate Secretary Ed Miliband roused Beijing's anger by accusing China of blocking a deal on CO2 emissions.

Yesterday Mr Lewis said he felt "sick to the stomach" about Mr Shaikh's death and added, "It is a deeply distressing day for anyone with a modicum of compassion or commitment to justice, in Britain and throughout the world."

The episode has cast a pall over UK-China relations, which London believed had been improving in recent years.

Last night British sources told The Independent that China was a "hugely significant country with which we have to continue to engage". He pointed to shared interests in tackling climate change, preventing nuclear proliferation and building closer economic links.

But the sources admitted human rights issues "affected the environment within which we are operating with the Chinese". If the bitter diplomatic row continues, it could also cause further resentment against the West in China. Extreme nationalists have latched onto the case as a demonstration that China is becoming a strong international player. One commentator described the execution as "a slap in the face for those arrogant Europeans".

But Mr Shaikh's family expressed their horror at the execution of the man who they said had entered China with delusional hopes of becoming a pop star. Relatives, including his brother, Akbar, held a candle-lit vigil outside the Chinese embassy in London. Cousins Soohail and Nasir Shaikh, who had made a last-minute visit to China to appeal for clemency, said they were "deeply saddened, stunned and disappointed" by the execution. "We are astonished at suggestions Akmal himself should have provided evidence of his own fragile state of mind," they added. "We find it ludicrous that any mentally ill person should be expected to provide this."

The rights group Reprieve, which had tried to stop Mr Shaikh's execution, said his death was "a sad indictment of today's world, and particularly of China's legal system".