The Chinese government never wanted anyone to know about Akmal Shaikh. They wanted him to remain one of the nameless thousands executed each year for crimes ranging from corruption to destroying cultural artefacts. Instead his execution on 29 December, 2009 was covered by almost every newspaper between London and Beijing. Instead the world's attention turned to one of China's most abhorrent and hidden human rights abuses.
Akmal, a British citizen, was arrested in September 2007 at Urumqi Airport in China. He was convicted of drug smuggling under article 347 of China's Criminal Code. His trial took place just three months later and lasted 30 minutes. It was not until October 2008, after the Beijing Games were over, that the British government and Akmal's family were informed that he has been sentenced to death. The British government referred the case to Reprieve and we started to work with his family to piece together his story.
Whilst Chinese officials repeated blocked our attempts to meet Akmal, we spoke with colleagues, neighbours, doctors, family members who all told of us of his erratic and bizarre behaviour, characteristic of someone suffering from bipolar disorder. However, in the face of overwhelming evidence, the Chinese prosecutors never allowed Akmal to have his mental health evaluated or for it to be introduced in court to mitigate his sentence.
The tragic and bitter irony of this story is that Akmal travelled to China to find fame. He had recorded a song in Poland, Come Little Rabbit, calling for world peace. He believed his new-found friends were promoting his music career by arranging a concert in Shanghai. One such friend gave him a bag and said he would fly out and join him in Urumqi on a later flight. When Akmal landed in China, the police stopped him, searched his bag and arrested him on drug charges, thereby setting him on the path to execution.
Akmal did, eventually, become something of a media sensation in China. When he was executed, the story was the most read article on SINA, a Chinese media outlet, with the public sentiment overwhelmingly in favour his execution due the very negative coverage it received. By then, saving Akmal's life was an almost impossible task.
On the eve of his execution, FCO minister Ivan Lewis went on a life-saving mission to meet with the Chinese Ambassador to the UK. In an emotional plea, he said he hoped "that our relationship with China will count for something and at this very, very last moment; they will make the right decision." This was the twenty-seventh representation made by the British government to the Chinese on behalf of Akmal Shaikh, all of which fell on deaf ears. The Chinese government ignored every single one. Akmal was executed by lethal injection at 10:30am on 29 December and his body was buried the following day at an unmarked grave in nearby Muslim cemetery.
In the last two years, tentative steps have been taken to reform the death penalty in China. For example, the number of crimes which carry the death sentence has dropped from 68 to 55. Offenses such as tax fraud, tomb robbing and stealing fossils no longer carry the death penalty. China's criminal code was also revised recently to prevent the execution of prisoners over the age of 75. Most significantly, a set of photos, now six years old, were released earlier this month of young women on the eve of their execution. The photos are an intimate portrait on the final hours of these women's lives: they show them trying on different outfits for their execution and playing card games through the final night.
I'd like to think these tentative steps towards reform are partly due to the battle we fought for Akmal two years ago. And as the Reprieve office slowly emptied at the end of a year marked by extraordinary victories, I was filled with sad memories of those desperate few days: Christmas morning spent drafting a clemency petition; Boxing day in Heathrow airport with Akmal's family before they flew to China to say their last goodbyes; and sitting in bed with my laptop at 2am on the morning of 29 December, waiting. But unlike the thousands of other people executed that year, this time there were millions of other people, like me, waiting, watching and thinking of Akmal. A star.