Over the past several days, most of Britain has been feet-up-before-the-fire, enjoying the Christmas holiday. Not so the family of Akmal Shaikh, the British prisoner who is set to die in China at 2.30am GMT on Tuesday.
I spent most of Christmas Day making travel arrangements for Akmal’s two cousins, Soohail and Nasir Shaikh, to fly 10,000 miles around the globe to plead for his life. They were allowed an hour and a half with him this morning, and emerged despondent. Akmal had only just been told he had 24 hours to live.
"He was obviously very upset on hearing from us of the sentence that was passed. We strongly feel that he's not rational and he needs medication,” said Soohail.
Yet as so often with the death penalty, when prisoners without wealth have lawyers without influence, the final flurry of publicity is often the first time that witnesses hear what is happening. Today, I have received three emails out of the blue from people who knew Akmal when he was homeless in Poland. Each tells a sad story about Akmal’s mental illness.
One, Luis Belmonte, is a Spanish photojournalist who followed Akmal for months, sliding from homelessness deeper into mental illness. Belmonte’s pictures of an unshaven man sitting on a bench in a crumpled white suit, staring despondently across a homeless shelter tell the story more eloquently than any lawyer could.
Two others were British teachers living in Poland. Paul Newberry and Gareth Saunders befriended Akmal, seeing past the crazy ideas to the gentle optimist beneath. Akmal was convinced that he would record a hit song that would usher in world peace, and his persistence paid off when he talked his way into a free hour at a recording studio. One Saturday, Akmal’s two newfound friends could not refuse his plea to help him make a first cut of the record. Saunders was a musician, and agreed to do backup vocals; Newberry offered his amateur bass guitar. They both agreed that the result was deplorable, but Akmal was not to be dissuaded from his mission.
These three witnesses provide compelling evidence of Akmal’s mental problems. However, at some point apparently some less charitable people cottoned onto Akmal’s vulnerability, and made him their unwitting drug mule; hence the looming hour of his execution.
Nobody should accept my view that Akmal is innocent of any criminal act; those of us who believe in a fair trial do not think our own views should be superceded, where convenient, by our own opinions in a newspaper. But it becomes increasingly clear that Akmal did not have a fair trial, and his case underlines the dangers of fallible humans assuming omnipotence.
The death penalty is the ultimate exertion of the Government’s overwhelming power, flooding over the meagre capacity of the individual who is seated defenceless in his prison cell. Yet ultimately it betrays a national weakness as well, a government’s failure to confront difficult issues while respecting human rights. This is as true for China as it is for the USA – whether in the context of the death penalty, or the excesses of the ‘War on Terror’.
Let us hope that the Chinese authorities remember the quality of mercy in time to avoid a tragic mistake: “Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes the thronèd monarch better than his crown.”