AKMAL Shaikh’s execution in China unsurprisingly dominates the news channels today. His story is a bizarre tragedy of a man clearly misguided and almost certainly mentally ill. It doesn’t seem that long ago that he was running Teksi Taxis at the fork of Fortess Road and Highgate Road.
I clearly remember a colleague trying to track him down over an employment tribunal case he had lost a few years ago. Maybe he had already left the country by then. What is clear is that nobody was aware of where he was headed – and nobody would have predicted, for all his wheeling and dealing, that he would end up with a suitcase full of heroin in one of the worst places in the world to have a suitcase full of heroin. People from north London, like his doctor, aren’t just saying it to rustle up a defence when they tell reporters that his involvement in drug smuggling comes as a total surprise. He was surely preyed on by drug barons who saw a vulnerable, easily-manipulated man cross their path.
What is striking is the angry debate about the case has kicked off today – and not yesterday or a week ago. The fountain of fiery words can do nothing now to save Akmal Shaikh’s life now. The story is ‘trending’ on Twitter – i.e. it is one of the most popular subjects on one of the world’s most used social networking sites. The sudden interest is too late to change the course of history.
It wasn’t as if this wasn’t a highly publicised story for several months – both nationally and locally – but only after his lethal injection this morning do people seem to be wisening up to what just happened. Imagine if everybody who sent out an appeal on Twitter or signed up to the Facebook petition pages had been down outside the Chinese embassy for the vigil yesterday. Portland Place would have been heaving. The traffic would have stopped. In the end, the TV footage suggested there was less than 50. A protester who was outside the embassy until this story’s sad conclusion was reached was on Sky News last night talking about how he wished more had come to show their support.
Of course, people felt helpless to intervene but there is something to admire in those who kept the candle burning through the night. Clicking on a Facebook petition wasn’t enough for them – the same tactic now used for every purpose however silly with little or no effect. Like the petition to make McDonalds do home delivery that you can add your name to. Or the petition to ‘bring back Vanilla Coke’.
Of course, there was more than a Facebook appeal in the attempts to save Akmal Shaikh. Reprieve deserve much credit, highlighting how a man suffering from bipolar can be sentenced to death during a secretive trial which reportedly lasted for little longer than 30 minutes and robustly campaigning until all was lost. And the government also seems to have been working hard on this, unable to risk doing so publicly and backing the Chinese leadership into a corner. By their nature, these sensitive negotiations have to be done privately to avoid a situation where another country’s government feels it would look weak if it changed its mind. But just imagine again what Portland Place might have looked like yesterday. Thousands implored China not to go through with it, but were they all heard?