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Arbitrary Justice

Author: Jerome A. Cohen, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies
December 23, 2009
South China Morning Post


China's Supreme People's Court has just announced a death penalty decision of great importance to the British government and the European Union, as well as Chinese and foreign human-rights advocates. In September 2007, Akmal Shaikh, a British subject of Pakistani descent, was detained at Urumqi airport in Xinjiang on charges of drug smuggling. He was convicted and sentenced to death in October 2008 and now confronts execution next Tuesday.

In a country that executes thousands every year, his case would be unexceptional - were it not for his alleged history of severe mental illness.

Although transparency is lacking in this case, as in so many others on the Chinese mainland, it appears that Central Asian smugglers, manipulating Shaikh's delusional ambitions to become a pop star in China, persuaded him to take in a suitcase containing 4kg of heroin.

Chinese legislation exempts from criminal responsibility someone unable to recognise or control his misconduct, and provides for reduction of punishment in cases of partial mental capacity. But Shaikh's 30-minute first instance trial ignored this major aspect of justice.

By the time of Shaikh's second instance trial, on May 26, the London-based rights organisation, Reprieve, had sent British forensic psychiatrist, Dr Peter Schaapveld, to Urumqi in the hope of conducting an examination that would confirm Shaikh's condition and inform the court's review. Unfortunately, without explanation, Schaapveld was denied an interview with Shaikh. He was also not permitted to attend the judicial hearing.



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