Hopes fade for Briton facing execution

Family makes last-ditch appeal to save mentally ill man from firing squad
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On the eve of his scheduled execution, relatives of Akmal Shaikh visited the condemned Briton on China's death row. It was the 53-year-old's first direct family contact in the two years since he was arrested for drugs smuggling, but it was no happy reunion.

Instead cousins Soohail and Nasir Shaikh broke the news that he was to be executed this morning. Until then the inmate, whose supporters say he suffers from bipolar disorder, had not been aware of his fate.

"They saw him for an hour and a half this morning, and gave him messages from the family," said Sally Rowen, legal director of the death penalty team at the human rights group Reprieve.

In a statement read to reporters in Urumqi, before they returned to Beijing late last night, the cousins made a last-ditch appeal for Mr Shaikh to be spared. "We beg the Chinese authorities for mercy and clemency to help reunite this heartbroken family," they said.

However, Reprieve said there was no other legal route for Mr Shaikh to follow as his appeal had been rejected, and that his only chance would be a last-minute pardon by some senior figure in the Beijing government, such as President Hu Jintao.

But the chances of that happening are slim at best, and Mr Shaikh is due to be executed by a bullet in the back of the neck this morning.

He was sentenced, after a trial that lasted half an hour in October 2008, for taking a suitcase containing 4kg of heroin into Urumqi. China's highest court has rejected his appeal.

His family insist that he suffers mental health problems and was fooled into committing the offence by criminals in Tajikistan, who promised the delusional man a career in pop music in China.

"He was obviously very upset on hearing from us of the sentence that was passed," Soohail Shaikh told the Associated Press after meeting his cousin. "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."

China executes more people each year than all other countries combined, accounting for nearly three quarters of all executions worldwide.

Beijing has already rejected a plea from Gordon Brown, for Shaikh to be spared. And last week the Chinese government's official spokesman said the case was being handled properly and in accordance with the law.

However, Britain has accused Chinese officials of not taking Shaikh's mental health concerns into account as required by law.

China is a signatory of the UN Commission on Human Rights charter, which requires a court "not to impose the death penalty on a person suffering from any form of mental disorder", and the country's own criminal code says mentally ill people should be given medical treatment and a reduced sentence, although they still have criminal responsibility.

The issue of executing people suffering from mental illness is controversial in China, and there is an ongoing debate about the country's liberal use of the ultimate sanction.

In 2008 some areas of the country started using lethal injection as a more humane approach to execution, but Xinjiang, the region in which Urumqi lies, still uses the firing squad.

In London, yesterday some of Shaikh's family held a vigil outside the Chinese embassy.

One cousin, Latif Shaikh, said the defendant's mother, who is in her 80s, knows her son is in prison but doesn't know he faces execution. He said he feared the shock could kill her.

Executed in China: Antonio Riva

*According to human rights groups, the last European to be executed in China was Antonio Riva, an Italian pilot who was shot by a firing squad in 1951 for "counter-revolutionary activities".

*The 55-year-old was executed alongside Japanese citizen Ruichi Yamaguchi after they were convicted of involvement in an alleged US plot to assassinate Communist leader Mao Zedong and other high-ranking officials.

*Riva was credited with at least seven aerial victories during the First World War and had been awarded a medal for military valour. Miranda Bryant