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China shows defiance with Briton's execution

 Soohail Shaikh, left, and Nasir Shaikh, relatives of a British man who faces execution in China, speak to journalists upon arrival in Beijing Capital...

China British Death Sentence

Soohail Shaikh, left, and Nasir Shaikh, relatives of a British man who faces execution in China, speak to journalists upon arrival in Beijing Capital...

China executed a British man for drug smuggling Tuesday, ignoring international pleas for clemency on the grounds he was mentally unstable and warning London that its outrage threatened relations.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was "appalled" by the execution _ China's first of a European citizen in nearly 60 years. But Beijing dismissed claims by relatives and rights groups that 53-year-old Akmal Shaikh's mental instability was exploited to lure him into smuggling a suitcase of heroin into the country.
Beijing's insistence in carrying out the death sentence reflects both the communist government's traditional distrust of foreign interference and its newfound power to resist Western pressure.
"We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to the British accusation," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference. "We urge the British side to correct its wrongdoing to avoid causing damages to bilateral relations."
Though rare, China has in the past pardoned prisoners or released them early in response to international pressure, particularly those accused of spying or political or economic crimes.
But with its rising global economic and political clout, China appears increasingly willing to ignore Western complaints over its justice system and human rights record. And as it relies more and more on China's cooperation to solve global problems _ from the recession to climate change _ the West has few ways to exert pressure on Beijing.
China's leaders "feel freer than their recent predecessors to disregard world pressures," said Jerome Cohen, an expert on China's legal system at New York University School of Law.
Whereas in the past, the West may have held out its approval as a carrot for China to improve its record on human rights, analyst Kerry Brown said now countries like Britain are now the ones eager to maintain good relations.
"There is a feeling that we have very limited leverage on China. We have to pick our territory where we can have an impact," said Brown, a China expert at the Chatham House think tank. "It's becoming more complicated by the day."
Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis called Tuesday a "deeply depressing day for anyone with a modicum of compassion or commitment to justice." Prime Minister Brown said he condemned the execution "in the strongest terms, and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted."
But tellingly, Lewis also said "we must and will continue to engage with China."
Recent weeks have seen China flex its new muscle repeatedly, and criticism from the West has mattered little.
Last week, a court sentenced Liu Xiaobo, the co-author of a political reform manifesto, to 11 years in prison in what rights groups called a direct rebuff to international pressure.
Earlier in the month, China urged Cambodia to interrupt a U.N. refugee screening process and subsequently Phnom Penh repatriated 20 ethnic Uighur asylum-seekers accused of involvement in ethnic unrest in western China.
The drug trafficking accusation against Shaikh made the case particularly sensitive in China, said University of Miami politics expert June Teufel Dreyer. Chinese nationalists say European powers, especially Britain, foisted opium on an unwitting populace in the 19th century after the country was forced to open its borders to European trade.
"Part of the narrative of the communists' liberating China from oppression is the wicked practice of foreign imperialist powers foisting drugs on a weak China," said Dreyer.
Eradicating widespread opium use was one of the founding legacies of the communist state, and Chinese nationalists have long pointed to the introduction of the drug as evidence of the nefarious influence of foreign powers.
Today, China's harsh penalties for drug use and selling also reflect its obsession with maintaining law and order amid sweeping social change.
Shaikh, a Pakistan-born former cab company manager, was arrested in 2007 for carrying a suitcase with almost 9 pounds (4 kilograms) of heroin into China on a flight from Tajikistan. His cousins said he was lured to China from a life on the street in Poland by men playing on his dreams to record a pop song for world peace.
He was convicted in 2008 after a half-hour trial. China has said there was no proof he was mentally ill, but one of Shaikh's Beijing-based lawyers said Tuesday that the country's highest court never evaluated his client's mental status.
The state-run Xinhua news agency said Shaikh was put to death by lethal injection. China, which puts to death more people each year than any other country, is increasingly abandoning firing squads for lethal injection. Earlier this year, Amnesty International said China executed at least 1,718 people in 2008. The exact number is not known.
The press office of the Xinjiang region where Shaikh had been held confirmed the execution.
The last known European executed in China was Antonio Riva, an Italian pilot who was shot by a firing squad in 1951 after being convicted of involvement in what China said was a plot to assassinate Mao Zedong and other high-ranking communist officials.
Shaikh's daughter Leilla Horsnell was quoted by the BBC and other British media outlets as saying she was "shocked and disappointed that the execution went ahead with no regards to my dad's mental health problems, and I struggle to understand how this is justice."
Associated Press reporters Alexa Olesen and Cara Anna in Beijing and Ng Han Guan in Urumqi contributed to this story.

Updated : 2021-07-24 02:11 GMT+08:00