February 2, 2010

Akmal Shaikh, Britain’s Double Standards, and Lessons for India

 The execution of a Britain in China for Drug Smuggling raises some interesting questions

Recently the news was atwitter with the execution in China of Akmal Shaikh, a "mentally ill" Briton. He was caught at Urumqi airport carrying 4 kilograms of heroin into China. His family (surprise surprise!) said that he was mentally ill. And then human rights groups, that are always more than ready to jump in on denouncing China, picked it up.

Much has been written about this story, with some citing it as yet another example of China's "increased confidence" and "muscle flexing"; and the more paranoid even saying that "the Chinese government didn’t need to know" that he was mentally ill, and only used Akmal Shaikh as a scapegoat to "keep the memory of those outrages (the Opium Wars) afresh". That particular article even goes on to say that it arrested four more drug smugglers "to show that it had no regrets"! Since China has sentenced one drug smuggler to death, the author thought it should stop arresting others.
After defeating China in the Opium Wars, Britain forced China to lift the ban on the import of Opium, which was until then illegal in China; but legal in Britain. This event is still taught to every Chinese schoolchild as a reminder of China’s ‘humiliation’ at the hands of western colonial powers.

Stories apart, what is really interesting is that not only did a majority of Chinese citizens actually support Shaikh’s execution, so did most comments on many international websites.

Double Standards

While some might argue that the death penalty is immoral, a closer look reveals the British Government’s double standards over human-rights issues. For example, it has refrained from criticizing the US over the death penalty. It should be noted that the US is still one of the few countries left to execute mentally ill persons. It abolished the execution of children as early as 2005. Then there is the case of Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, also British, who was held in illegal US detention centers and allegedly tortured for more than two years before being released without charge.

Similar examples abound. Another is Gary McKinnon, a British citizen is accused of hacking into the Pentagon’s computers. Now what is interesting is that he is autistic. His mother says that according to medical reports by top experts in the world, McKinnon will undoubtedly commit suicide if extradited.

Lessons for India

This incident might hold some valuable lessons for the Indian government, that very often succumbs to the demands of Western countries on many issues. It agreed to "slightly amend" visa rules (after first tightening them) possibly because the US and UK government protested. More recently, it kept largely quiet after India was snubbed at the London Conference on Afghanistan due to a difference of opinion with western countries. Contrast this with China, whose vice Foreign minister called the US envoy on climate change "extremely irresponsible or lacking in common sense". Such strong statements are heresy for Indian officials, except maybe when directed against Pakistan.

(update: this post also featured on Fool's Mountain)