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Ten years after Akmal Shaikh, mentally-ill prisoners still await execution on death row

This New Year marked the tenth anniversary of the harrowing story of a minicab firm manager's execution

10 January, 2020 — By Richard Osley

Akmal Shaikh ran the Teksi mini-cab firm in Kentish Town

IF only Akmal Shaikh could have been saved by twibbons. You might not remember his name, but a decade ago a small army of social media users decorated their profiles with these “Twitter ribbons”, calling for his life to be spared.

It wasn’t.

And, if the blunt reality is to be properly told, everybody gasped, but then the well-meaning clicktivists swiftly moved on to the next thing.

This bleak parable about undiagnosed mental ill-health and vulnerability is now largely forgotten. That might suit some ­people. But for those who were close to Mr Shaikh, each New Year marks a miserable anniversary. Last week it was the tenth, to the day, that Mr Shaikh was wheeled into a Chinese execution room – 5,000 miles from home – and given a lethal injection, the death penalty handed to him for arriving at Urumqi airport with a bag concealing four kilograms of heroin.

Hard and fast believers in capital punishment may say that he got what he deserved, that he should have been more than aware of what would happen if he tried to enter China with a suitcase stuffed with deadly street drugs. According to Amnesty International, China executes more people per annum than the rest of the world combined. Their approach is not a secret, even if the execution of Europeans there is rare.

If you recall what else Mr Shaikh arrived in China with, however, you might see the case is far more complex, far more harrowing and worthy of repeating if only to raise a flag for all the other mentally-ill prisoners awaiting their punishment on death rows around the world. Mr Shaikh, 53 when he died, who had once happily run the Teksi cab firm in Kentish Town at the fork in the road near the Bull and Gate pub, had arrived in Urumqi with a song, which in his confused state he thought could somehow bring about world peace.

Rogue elements, who have never been properly identified beyond vague first names, had helped him record Come Little Rabbit in a studio in Poland and then directed him on his way to China, where he had been convinced he would crack the charts and find fame. He just had to take one of his new rich acquaintance’s suitcases along too.

Come Little Rabbit, needless to say, had no chance of either bringing Mr Shaikh pop world riches or solving the ills of the globe by uniting nations singing the chorus. It is so bad you wouldn’t accept it from a cheap children’s entertainer at a toddler’s birthday party.

It’s still on the video-sharing site YouTube, if you need to make your own mind up.

Come Little Rabbit by Akmal Shaikh

Locked up with only the late Frank Dobson, his MP, and the campaigning group Reprieve trying to win clemency, Mr Shaikh was never properly assessed for his mental fitness to stand trial. When he appeared in court, he rambled about the world and the judges reportedly smiled. It was later revealed he had been an obsessive letter writer, sending messages to Tony Blair and The Beatles with the solution for global peace.

All calls for him to be reprieved on mental health grounds, however, were refused. In his last few days, out came the twibbons as the press became alert to the imminent danger, but only a few who clicked the petitions sat in the cold when a small protest on the eve of his death formed outside the Chinese embassy in Portland Place.

“Akmal Shaikh’s execution was tragic on so many levels,” said Maya Foa, the current director of Reprieve. “Here was a man exhibiting clear signs of mental illness, tricked into carrying drugs through an airport and sentenced to death for smuggling, while the real criminals went free. But the sad truth is, it’s a story we hear again and again in Reprieve’s work on death rows all over the world, from Pakistan to Malawi to the USA. Multiple studies have shown that the death penalty is used disproportionately against the most vulnerable people.”

Mr Shaikh had showed some signs of erratic behaviour – it is suspected that he was suffering from a bipolar disorder – in his later years running the cab firm. When he left Kentish Town in 2005, he had an impossible plan to start a new airline in Poland, where one of the women who used to work for his company had come from.

When this inevitably did not work out, there were reports of him sleeping rough in Warsaw where somewhere along the line he was scouted by drug runners as vulnerable enough to believe all sorts of stories.

A backing singer who was in the studio when Come Little Rabbit was mixed, said at the time: “It would be totally unlike him to get mixed up in drugs. However, it would be totally typical of him to fall for some kind of story that some drug dealer might spin to him concerning making his record in China. Akmal would have gone on and on about his song, and it would have been easy for someone to see that he could be exploited.”

One man – Carlos – paid for his flight out of Poland, stopping in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where he met Okole, a supposed nightclub manager who was promising to make him a singing star. Okole, of course, suddenly found there was only one seat left on their flight on to China so urged him to go ahead – but to take his suitcase with him.

He was arrested and was on his way to becoming the first European to be executed in China in more than 50 years.

Foreign Office officials did get 15 minutes with him late in the day, and diagnosed likely schizophrenia or bipolar. It changed nothing.

Gordon Brown, the prime minister at the time, condemned the execution, but there was restlessness about what the government had actually done to help.

The 2010 general election was near and George Lee, a former police officer who is now a Liberal Democrat politician but who was then standing for the Tories in Camden, said he condemned the death penalty but suggested a hard line approach to drugs had been more successful in China. So soon after Mr Shaikh’s death, it was not immediately obvious that this was a prevailing view in Camden. He clashed with Mr Dobson over it, the MP describing Mr Shaikh’s treatment as vile.

But while the twisting story of a businessman from NW5 ending up in so much trouble so far away from home may seem unusual, Ms Foa and Reprieve’s founder Clive Stafford Smith are right about the numbers of mentally-ill people in prison, awaiting the death penalty abroad. Some we might never hear about it.

Ms Foa said: “One day we will look back on it and wonder how this barbaric and outdated punishment was accepted for so long.”

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