14 October 2009

Some Notes on Mental Illness and Criminal Responsibility in China

In light of the case of Akmal Shaikh, a British national of Pakistani origin who has been sentenced to death in Urumchi on drug charges, I've been doing a bit of reading on the subject of China's laws regarding mitigation of criminal responsibility due to mental illness.

Article 18 of the Criminal Law is fairly straightforward:
If a mentally ill person causes harmful consequences at a time when he is unable to recognize or control his own conduct, following verification and confirmation through legal procedure, he shall not bear criminal responsibility, but his family members or guardian shall be ordered to keep him under strict watch and control and arrange for his medical treatment. When necessary, the government may compel him to receive medical treatment.

Any person whose mental illness is of an intermittent nature shall bear criminal responsibility if he commits a crime when he is in a normal mental state.

If a crime is committed by a mentally ill person who has not completely lost the ability to recognize or control his own conduct, he shall bear criminal responsibility; however, he may be given a lighter or mitigated punishment.

Any intoxicated person who commits a crime shall bear criminal responsibility.
So, depending on the nature of the mental illness, criminal responsibility can be either completely nullified or a lighter punishment may be imposed if it has been found to have impaired the ability to recognize or control one's actions. All of this is dependent on a psychiatric evaluation to be carried out by an appointed medical professional and introduced as evidence according to relevant legal procedure.

Such an evaluation was carried out for the trial of Deng Yujiao, and it was the certification of her psychiatric condition that was cited by the court in its decision to exempt her from punishment. Meanwhile, in Yang Jia's murder trial, a psychiatric evaluation was reportedly conducted despite Yang's insistence that he was not mentally ill. The evaluation was negative, and Yang was executed.

Yet in this case—a case in which defense counsel is reported to have raised the issue of mental illness and in which the Times reports the defendant was "apparently so delusional during an appeals hearing in May that the judges could not help but laugh out loud"—the court evidently saw no need to conduct a psychiatric evaluation. Discretion to order such examinations on incarcerated suspects clearly rests solely with criminal justice authorities, and apparently that discretion can be exercised quite arbitrarily in China.

Akmal Shaikh's actions may or may not have been a result of impairment due to mental illness, but shouldn't the ultimate determination be made on the basis of a proper medical evaluation, especially in a death penalty case where an allegation of mental illness has been made? I certainly hope that the judges conducting the final review of the death sentence in this case would recognize this glaring failure to safeguard Shaikh's human rights, vacate the verdict, and order a new trial.


  1. Was the mental illness a result of his drug use? That (or suspicion of that) may have made the judges less sympathetic to a mental illness evaluation.

  2. That doesn't seem to be the justification, according to the Times piece, which quotes an MFA spokesperson as saying that no evaluation was conducted because he insisted that neither he nor any family member had previously suffered from mental illness. I've seen no allegations of drug use (though I've not seen any court documents in this case).

    But Yang Jia was evaluated despite his denials of mental illness, so I'm doubtful whether a defendant's denial of mental illness can be sufficient justification to reject an evaluation. To expect a mentally ill person to be sufficiently cognizant of his mental illness strikes me as a classic Catch-22 situation.