Mentally ill Briton 'could be executed within days'

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The Independent Online

A mentally ill British man could be executed in China within days after losing his appeal against the death sentence, a human rights charity said today.

Akmal Shaikh was arrested at Urumqi Airport in north-west China with 4kg (8.8lb) of heroin in a suitcase.

The 53-year-old father of five from Kentish Town in North London is believed to have bi-polar disorder. He was duped into carrying the luggage by a man from Kyrgyzstan who had told Mr Shaikh he could help him launch a career in the music industry.

Amnesty International is now urging people to visit and write urgently to the Chinese authorities, calling on the Supreme People's Court to prevent the execution.

They are also urging the authorities to ensure Mr Shaikh has access to his family and any medical attention he may require, including psychiatric evaluation.

Up until now, the Chinese authorities have refused to allow him to be examined by a doctor.

Forensic psychologist Dr Peter Shaapveld, who travelled to China specifically to meet Mr Shaikh, was not allowed to see him.

After studying accounts by his family members, Dr Shaapveld concluded that "the evidence clearly points to the fact that Mr Shaikh was and/or is suffering from a severe mental disorder."

Earlier this week, Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband raised the issue during a meeting with Dai Bingguo, the Chinese state councillor for foreign affairs.

The Foreign Office later issued a statement which said: "The Prime Minister was shocked and disturbed to discover that the death sentence imposed in China on British national Akmal Shaikh has been upheld, without proper consideration of his mental health."

Actor Stephen Fry has also called for the death sentence to be commuted.

"I wouldn't be standing here pleading clemency for someone if I didn't think there was a real case for mercy," said Mr Fry last week.

"A real case where China can demonstrate that it does understand that mental illness can provoke people into doing things that are otherwise intolerable."

He added: "Akmal is a very delusional figure. He has a history of quite extraordinary and perplexing behaviour, mixing grandiosity and mental delusion in a very characteristic way for those who are severely affected by bipolar disorder.

"It's an affliction I suffer from myself to some extent - not, I'm happy to say, as severely as Akmal - but all through my life I've been to some extent dogged by mood swings."

Mr Shaikh was detained at the airport in Urumqi, capital of China's Xinjiang region, on September 12, 2007, when he arrived on a flight from Tajikistan.

He was accused of carrying 4kg of heroin in his luggage. It is believed Mr Shaikh had been tricked by a criminal gang in Poland, where he had been living.

Gang members had promised to introduce him to people in the music business, who would assist him with his music career, and arranged for him to travel to Kyrgyzstan and then to China.

Mr Shaikh had been asked to carry the luggage that contained the heroin, believing that he was going to be able to launch a career as a pop star.

Amnesty International UK campaigns director Tim Hancock said: "Akmal Shaikh should not be executed. There's evidence that he may have a serious mental disorder, which could warrant a less extreme sentence under Chinese law.

"The Chinese authorities should allow a psychiatric evaluation immediately.

"China's Supreme People's Court has it in their power to stop this execution. We're calling on people to write to them immediately, urging them to intervene.

"The death penalty is always wrong, the ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment. But in countries like China, where the prisoner is highly unlikely to have received a fair trial, its use is even more deplorable."