Relatives fly to China in bid to save death-row Briton

Cousins of the Londoner facing execution for drug smuggling fly in with last-ditch appeal for clemency
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The Independent Online

Relatives of Akmal Shaikh, the Briton on death row in China, arrived in the country today in a desperate attempt to save the mentally-ill man, who is due to be executed on Tuesday.

His cousins – Soohail Shaikh and Nasir Shaikh – will deliver a plea for mercy to the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, in Beijing before travelling to the city of Urumqi where Mr Shaikh has been held since being convicted of smuggling 4kg of heroin in 2007.

Mr Shaikh, 51, who comes from London, suffers from bipolar disorder and was reportedly suffering from delusional beliefs when he travelled to China in 2007, denies any knowledge of the drugs.

The cousins will also deliver legal petitions seeking a review of the case before trying to visit Mr Shaikh on the eve of his execution. If permitted, it will be the first time he has had direct contact with his family in two years.

British consular staff spent yesterday with Mr Shaikh as official last-ditch attempts to save him continued.

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, have both written to the Chinese government in the past week, after Mr Shaikh's final appeal was refused by China's supreme court. British consular officials are expected to stay in Urumqi until Tuesday to support Mr Shaikh.

In a letter to the Chinese ambassador, sent on Christmas Eve, his brother Akbar Shaikh begs the Chinese authorities to show compassion for his sick brother and his distraught family. There are no more legal avenues open to Mr Shaikh who could become the first EU national to be executed in China in 50 years.

Akbar Shaikh writes: "We now plead for mercy and clemency... I beg you to spare his children the trauma of losing their father and to spare me the agony of losing my brother... Perhaps the most important of all is the effect this would have on my mum. She is ill with heart problems and we fear news of Akmal's death might bring about her own."

Mr Shaikh, who is married with three children, travelled to China from Poland, where he was behaving bizarrely. He reportedly tried to start an airline before heading to China to pursue a pop career, despite having no singing experience.

He has a long history of mental illness which campaigners believe the Chinese courts have failed to take into consideration. China executed 1,718 people last year – 72 per cent of the world's total executions for 2008, according to Amnesty International.

The letter continues: "When he is well, my brother is a kind and loving man who would never harm anyone. The idea that he would be transporting drugs is completely out of character for him. Our family strongly believes that Akmal must have been delusional at the time of his arrest and it does seem that others took advantage of his mental vulnerability."

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed that government officials continued to make representations at the highest level and said consular officials in China were doing all they could to help Mr Shaikh.

The charity Reprieve, which promotes the human rights of prisoners, believes Mr Shaikh was duped into carrying the drugs by a criminal gang. This is the first time the charity has been involved in a case in China and last night it acknowledged that there were few options left.

Sally Rowen from Reprieve said: "Our entire focus is now on appeals for clemency."