Desperate plea for Briton on death row

Campaigners and family members were tonight pleading for the life of a Briton who is due to be executed in China after being convicted of smuggling heroin.

A candlelit vigil was being held outside the Chinese embassy in central London calling for a last-minute reprieve for 53-year-old Akmal Shaikh from Kentish Town, north London, on the grounds that he is seriously mentally ill.

Mr Shaikh, who was convicted of smuggling 4kg of heroin after being arrested in Urumqi, north west China in September 2007, is due to be executed at 10.30am tomorrow - 2.30am GMT - after losing a final appeal last week.

But campaigners and witnesses who have contacted the human rights group Reprieve have said he is mentally ill and had been suffering from delusions.

It is believed that Mr Shaikh, who was homeless in Poland, was tricked into carrying drugs by a gang in the country who had told him he could become a pop star in China.

Seema Khan, 54, Mr Shaikh's cousin, from Chigwell, Essex, who joined the vigil today said: "We hope and pray that the Chinese government will reprieve him even at the last minute.

"I grew up with Akmal and I know that he would never knowingly have become involved in something of this nature.

"He is an upright citizen who has never been in trouble with the law before."

Mr Shaikh's cousin, Latif Shaikh, 41, a lift engineer from Chigwell who is Mrs Khan's brother, said the family were "devastated" at the news that he was to be executed.

He said Mr Shaikh's mother, who is in her 80s, and lives in north London, knew he was in prison but was unaware that he faced the death penalty.

He said the shock could kill her.

"The whole family is absolutely devastated, his own mother does not know yet.

"I hope and pray that it will not come to this. This execution will take two lives without a doubt."

Reprieve said Mr Shaikh had been obsessed by recording a "bizarre" song which he believed would usher in world peace.

Two British men, Paul Newberry and Gareth Saunders, who were persuaded to help Mr Shaikh record his song in Poland, contacted the organisation following publicity about the case, and said it was clear he was mentally ill.

They said they tried to convince Mr Shaikh that the song Come Little Rabbit, was "hopeless".

Mr Newberry, a British national who lives in Poland, told Reprieve Mr Shaikh had shown them lyrics to the song written on a paper napkin and tried to convince them it would be a hit.

"For a few weeks he pestered us until finally we agreed to record it with him," he said.

"I have no idea who paid for the recording studio but I think he used his charm and persistence to persuade the owner to let him record the song."

Mr Shaikh's cousins Soohail and Nasir Shaikh, who were allowed to see him for a meeting lasting an hour-and-a-half, have delivered a petition asking for clemency to the trial judge in Urumqi.

They were due to deliver petitions for clemency to the Chinese President, Supreme People's Court, and National People's Congress in Beijing.

Mr Shaikh was informed this morning that he would be executed tomorrow as the Chinese authorities are said to have kept his fate from him up until then on "humanitarian grounds".

Soohail said: "He was obviously very upset on hearing from us of the sentence that was passed.

"We strongly feel that he's not rational and he needs medication.

"We feel a pardon would allow Akmal to get the medical assistance he needs as well as the healing love from his family."

Reprieve director Clive Stafford Smith said: "While it must be torture for Akmal going through this, the last-minute nature of this evidence is an example of why there must always be last-minute clemency."

Mr Shaikh is believed to be suffering from bipolar disorder and his case has attracted support from mental health campaigners as well as those opposed to the death penalty.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is among those who have urged the Chinese government to grant Mr Shaikh a reprieve from the death sentence.

Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis also spoke by telephone to his Chinese counterpart today to make clear Britain's "opposition" to Mr Shaikh's death sentence, the government said.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "The British Government has been doing and will continue to do everything within its power to secure a fair trial and clemency on the death penalty for Akmal Shaikh.

"The Prime Minister has intervened personally on a number of occasions: he has raised the case with Premier Wen, most recently at the Copenhagen summit; and has written several times to President Hu.

"At every level - including at ministerial level today, in a phone call from FCO minister Ivan Lewis to his Chinese counterpart - the Government has raised its concerns, made clear our opposition to the death penalty, and requested a full mental health assessment. We will remain engaged in the coming hours."

A Facebook group called Stop the Execution of Akmal Shaikh has so far attracted more than 2,802 members with members joining the vigil outside the Chinese embassy.