A busy few days for old-fashioned diplomacy, with China taking no obvious notice of British and other pleas for clemency in the case of Akmal Shaikh, and the Tehran regime hauling in the British Ambassador Simon Gass to issue dire warnings about a ‘slap in the face’ from Iran.

Some thoughts. First, Akmal Shaikh.

Mr Shaikh was well known to the British Embassy consular team in Warsaw when I was Ambassador, as he was then living in Poland and often pressed the Embassy to intervene in his different battles with the Polish authorities. I do not remember getting involved myself in all this. Anyone keen to find out more can run an FOI request and see what emerges.

The Polish media have been looking at Mr Shaikh’s life and times in Poland. See eg this piece by TVN which mentions that the Lublin police held Mr Shaikh on charges relating to driving while under the influence of alcohol – and threatening terrorist attacks. And this other report from Polska newspaper:

He was married to a resident of Lublin. He came from London in 1998 and offered the city fathers to start an airline, among other ventures. He would turn up at the town hall every six months, each time with new ideas.

In 2005 for example he decided to build a huge mosque. He presented his initiative to the then councillor Dariusz Jezior but the latter showed no interest in the idea. Since that time Akmal kept sending him SMS threats. – I will bring people from Pakistan, terrorists who are more ruthless and will do what needs to be done – Akmal wrote to the councillor who eventually brought the case to the police. 


Once Mr Shaikh was convicted in China on drug smuggling charges and faced execution, the British government had a dilemma. How best if at all to intervene?

Various options were available:

  • do nothing, and hope that Chinese justice might end up leaving him spared execution
  • press publicly for clemency
  • press privately for clemency
  • try to get others (eg the EU) to take up the issue

The way most likely to fail in such cases is to press frequently, noisily and publicly, since that means that any act of clemency by the other side will look to have been done under humiliating foreign pressure. Former diplomat-turned-politician George Walden (who served in China) sums up the issues here well, and looks back at some awkward history.

That said, if a veritable global storm of protest can be generated – as in the case of the Sharpeville Six in South Africa – that approach can work.

Part of the problem here is that most countries, even (especially?) those without serious democracy, like to maintain that their legal systems are independent of political influence. So it is easy for the authorities to shrug their shoulders and say primly, "Sorry, we’d love to help – but alas our hands are tied. You British of course understand, since your own independent judiciary is rightly feted as an example to us all".

Which is why HM Government strove to pitch the arguments in terms of possible room for manoeuvre within the Chinese system itself, pressing the point that Mr Shaikh had rights which (arguably) had been denied.

But that too was a double-edged sword – did the Chinese want to accept that their own system made errors?

What about getting others to weigh in? A deathly hush from the EU’s new High Representative Baroness Ashton? In any case, other leaders are usually loath to get involved in such national cases – they do not like pumping out synthetic indignation when they have no real way of identifying the true facts of the case for themselves.

Over in China the Embassy will have been busy trying to decide and advise where if at all pressure might most persuasively be applied. National or regional level? Justice Ministry or eg more politically via the Prime Minister’s office? How best to pitch the ‘tone’? Unfailingly polite if not deferential? Or with a sense of anger and some sort of hints that China/UK relations will suffer if the ‘wrong’ outcome arises?

In London the calculation was rather different. How to balance the best chance of success – more or less completely silent diplomacy – with clamour from the family and various NGOs that HMG needed to do ‘more’ to secure a reprieve? In the end as many as 27 different appeals by Ministers (with a personal one from Gordon Brown) were made. Too many to be wise – and perhaps even so many as to be annoying?

In this dismal case nothing was likely to work, and nothing did work.

Hence now sharp public diplomatic exchanges between London and Beijing, with the Chinese Ambassador summoned for a difficult meeting with FCO Minister Ivan Lewis and China telling London to ‘mend its ways’.

Hence the FCO left is brooding on its failure here and the earlier bitter words between London and Beijing after the Copenhagen fiasco:

In both cases the Foreign and Commonwealth Office appears to have considerably overestimated its leverage with the emerging superpower, convinced until it was too late that China was so desperate to avoid public criticism that it would yield to private pressure. A wholesale change of direction is ruled out but senior government figures admit to feeling shaken by the twin failures.

“Changing our China strategy into one of non-engagement or isolationism is neither credible nor desirable and would be counterproductive,” said a government source. “But do we wake up this morning with a little less trust on our side? Yes, we do.”

Yesterday on BBC Radio Five Live plenty of people were telephoning in to say that Mr Shaikh deserved no mercy, and that the UK too should bring back the death penalty.

A Lib Dem MP said that the Government had done all it could and proclaimed himself simply lost for words to know what the answer was.

Maybe it depends on the question?