Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Execution of Akmal Shaikh Hits a Little Too Close to Home

Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen, was executed in China today.  This might not ordinarily interest people, certainly not outside of China and the United Kingdom, were it not for two factors: the crime of which he was convicted and the state of his health.  Akmal Shaikh was sentenced for bringing 4 kilograms of heroin into the country.  He was also, by all accounts, mentally ill.

No one would dispute that bringing that much heroin into the country is a very big deal.  He clearly should not have done that, and if he had done it in the United States and found legally sane, he would have spent a very, very long time in jail.  Drug smuggling is not, in our country, a capital crime.  In Great Britain, there is no death penalty at all.  China, on the other hand, leads the world in executions.

Shaikh reportedly suffered from bipolar disorder.  Those of us who know and love people with bipolar disorder know that it can be incapacitating if it's not properly managed.  For whatever reason, Shaikh's wasn't.  He had delusions of grandeur that caused him to record a song about rabbits believing it would usher in world peace.  The emails he sent about his trial are rambling.  He came into posession of the heroin from drug smugglers who found him on the streets of Poland.  There is a serious question to be asked about whether he understood the difference between right and wrong when he smuggled the drugs, and even if he knew they were in his luggage.  It seems relatively clear that he did not understand the nature of the proceedings against him.

Under ordinary circumstances, we are not used to contemplating our own personal risk of being executed.  Most of us cannot, for example, imagine committing premeditated murder.  Yes, there are people out there who do it, but most of us don't.  To keep ourselves from lethal injection, all we need to do is not kill anybody.  We can handle that.

This case, however, is not ordinary circumstances.  To avoid being executed in this case, we have to avoid smuggling drugs.  That doesn't seem so hard.  But we also have to avoid suffering from a mental illness that causes us to lose touch with reality.  A lot of people probably feel like that shouldn't be too difficult either.  If you yourself or someone close to you suffers from depression, bipolar disorder, or any number of other psychiatric problems, however, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that this really could happen to anyone. 

I'm not too comfortable using the statement "it could happen to anyone" associated with the concept of execution.  Maybe you aren't, either.  That's why we don't execute people in these situations in this country.  That's why the United Kingdom doesn't have the death penalty at all.  It's just a little too close to home.


Anonymous said...

Amnesty International has joined a chorus of criticism of China over the execution by
lethal injection of Akmal Shaikh, a British convicted drug smuggler said by friends and
family to have been mentally ill.
Amnesty said Shaikh's execution again highlighted the "injustice and inhumanity of the
death penalty, particularly as it is implemented in China". Amnesty estimates China
executes at least three times as many people as every other country put together.
Sam Zarifi, Amnesty's Asia programme director, said: "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
Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur, told Radio 4's Today programme that the refusal
to allow doctors to assess Shaikh's mental health was "clearly in violation not only of
Chinese law but also international law".
"International law points very strongly in the direction of only carrying out the death
penalty for crimes which have led to deaths," he said.
Sally Rowen, the legal director of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said: "The death of
Akmal Shaikh is a sad indictment of today's world and particularly of China's legal
system. Akmal was a gentle man who suffered from a tormenting illness; he slipped
through the cracks of society and was betrayed and deliberately killed by one of the most
powerful nations on earth. We at Reprieve are sickened by what we have seen during
our work on this case."

Here's one China Daily comment (at http://comment.chinadaily.com.cn/articlecmt.shtml?id=9242143&page=1)

"On the Chinese Visa application it asks if you have a mental Illness. "

THEY are nuts.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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