[h1]Mentally ill Briton faces execution for smuggling heroin into China[/h1]
Lawyers warn that Akmal Shaikh, 53, who has delusional psychosis, could be shot dead in jail after reports that his second appeal has failed
Police show of a group of hardcore convicts at a sentencing rally in Wenzhou, China, 7 April 2004. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images
A British man is facing execution after being convicted of smuggling heroin into China. Akmal Shaikh, 53, from north London, was arrested after a suitcase he was carrying was allegedly found to contain 4kg of the drug, with a value of £250,000.
Shaikh, who is said to be severely mentally ill, will become the first British citizen to be executed in China; his lawyers warn that he could be killed imminently by a gunshot to the back of his head. Foreign Office officials said there were reports last week that his second appeal had failed, but had yet to receive "official confirmation" or any news from the Chinese authorities.
Emails seen by the Observer reveal that Shaikh was recruited in a sting operation involving criminal figures in Poland, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. His defence was that he was duped by the gang and had no knowledge of the drugs.
Shaikh, who is married to an Englishwoman and has five children, genuinely believed the gang were his friends and were grooming him for pop stardom. In fact, say lawyers and friends, he was, and is, suffering from delusional psychosis.
Despite being given evidence of his mental condition, the Chinese authorities have refused to conduct a psychological assessment of the Briton and did not take his mental illness into account.
During a court appearance to plead his innocence, witnesses said that such was the incoherent nature of his 50-minute speech that those in the courtroom openly laughed.
Actor Stephen Fry, who suffers from bipolar disorder, is among those supporting calls for the Chinese government to spare Shaikh's life. Gordon Brown is understood to have raised Shaikh's situation with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, at the recent G20 summit in Pittsburgh, although British lawyers stress that more diplomatic pressure is urgently required.
Clive Stafford-Smith, director of the legal charity Reprieve, which is representing Shaikh, said: "The latest reports from China are extremely worrying, and unless the serious mental issues affecting Akmal are considered he faces the possibility of a hollow-point bullet to the back of the head some time very soon."
Shaikh, who is imprisoned in the isolated north-western city of Urumqi, was the victim of an elaborate ruse to exploit his mental condition, say his supporters. Yet only five years ago he appeared to have a stable life, running a successful successful minicab firm in Kentish Town with his wife. Shaikh's former solicitor said that as recently as 2003 Shaikh was a "charming and charismatic man".
However, his mental state deteriorated sharply soon afterwards, said the solicitor, and the following year he left London for Poland, where he planned to set up an airline despite having no financial means. "By the time he went over to Poland you could not even sit down and have a conversation with him," said Shaikh's former solicitor.
In Poland Shaikh's mental state worsened after a relationship with a new girlfriend foundered. Requesting anonymity, she said Shaikh began to act in a "really silly and crazy way" and cited such incidents as the time he sent her a fake letter claiming to show he had won £1m.
Emails sent by Shaikh to the British embassy in Warsaw in 2007, when he appears to have been befriended by Polish heroin traffickers he met in the city of Lublin, expose his vulnerable state of mind. Among them are claims by Shaikh to have spoken to the angel Gabriel and how he could have prevented the 7 July bombings in London had he been allowed to hold a press conference in Lublin.
Typical of the hundreds of emails he sent to embassy staff in Warsaw is one that states: "Hey old chap u have any marshmallows. i man luvly bonfire u must roast some marshmellows I mean that's NOrMal." Another reads: "There is no such thinG as an englishmaN I mean king harold got it smack bang center in the EYE. its just not cricket anymore."
Some messages were sent to a group of 74 individuals and organisations including Tony Blair, Sir Paul McCartney, the Fathers 4 Justice campaign group, Scotland Yard, the BBC programme Top Gear and President George W Bush, who is referred to as "Bushie".
But the emails also chart how Shaikh met the Polish criminals, in particular a character called Carlos with whom he claims to have composed a song and who promised Shaikh he could turn it into a hit record. Carlos told him he had excellent contacts in the music business and they would help him achieve success. In September 2007 Carlos paid for a flight for Shaikh to Kyrgyzstan.
There, his passport was taken by some unnamed men, although Shaikh seems unperturbed because at that stage he believed he was on the brink of international fame and "would not need it".Shaikh's passport was later returned, along with a flight ticket to China, and he was introduced to a man called Okole who would escort him to Urumqi. Okole, according to Shaikh, ran a huge nightclub in China and promised the Briton that he could perform his song there.
They left for China on 8 September 2007, stopping en route in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. In Dushanbe, Okole informed Shaikh that the British man would have to travel alone to China because there was only one seat left on the plane. Okole gave him a suitcase and promised to follow on the next flight. Shaikh landed in Urumqi airport on 12 September and was arrested after his suitcase was scanned.
Shaikh is understood to have co-operated fully with the police, explaining that the suitcase did not belong to him and he had no knowledge of the heroin. He even organised a "sting" operation, telling officers to wait for Okole when he arrived from Tajikistan. Okole never turned up. "It is highly likely that these professional drug smugglers knew that he was suffering from a mental illness and could be readily manipulated," said Stafford-Smith.
Two months after his arrest Shaikh was sentenced to death. The British government, however, was not told until almost a year later, in November 2008. Last May Shaikh's appeal against his sentence at the district court in Urumqi was rejected, leaving a final appeal in the Supreme People's Court to save his life, which is now reported to have failed. Prisoners can be executed "almost immediately" after a second appeal has been rejected.
His brother Akbar said: "Akmal has struggled for many years with what we now know to be a serious mental illness. We are all very worried for his safety as we know he is unable to defend himself properly. He will be extremely disorientated and distressed. We are praying that the Chinese courts will see that he is not of sound mind and prevent his execution."
Dr Peter Schaapveld, a London-based consultant clinical and forensic psychologist, said: "If this case occurred in Britain, mental health issues would be played all the way through the process: Should he be charged? Should be found guilty at all? Should his condition ameliorate the sentence?"
Schaapveld flew to China five months ago to evaluate Shaikh's mental condition but the authorities refused to let him see the prisoner. However, foreign office officials were allowed to spend 15 minutes with Shaikh. From their description of Shaikh's behaviour, Shaapveld was able to deduce with "99% certainty" that he was suffering from a mental disorder that could either be bipolar or schizophrenia.
A Foreign Office spokesman said that it strongly opposed the death sentence and had made strong representations in Shaikh's case.
Mark Townsend Crime Correspondent
The Observer, Sunday 11 October 2009