Page last updated at 10:40 GMT, Monday, 28 December 2009

Akmal Shaikh's family visit ahead of planned execution

Akmal Shaikh
Akmal Shaikh's family say he suffers from bipolar disorder

The family of a British man awaiting execution in China for drug smuggling have visited him and delivered a last-minute petition for clemency.

Akmal Shaikh's cousins gave him messages from the rest of the family. He is in a secure hospital and due to be executed in the next 24 hours.

The 53-year-old's relatives and defence team have said he is mentally ill and did not know what he was doing.

His daughter has said she feared "time was running out".

Mr Shaikh, from London, has denied all knowledge of the 4kg of heroin found in his possession in the remote north-western city of Urumqi in 2007.

His execution date has been set for 29 December, despite pleas for mercy from his relatives and the UK government.

'Special treatment'

His daughter Leilla Horsnell told the BBC her father was not aware he could be shot within hours, but this was a "good thing" because his mental state was so fragile.

Mr Shaikh's cousins, Soohail and Nasir Shaikh, spent an hour and a half with him on Monday at the hospital in Urumqi. They also handed in a petition to the local court asking for a stay of execution.

Soohail Shaikh after visiting his cousin Akmal Shaikh in prison

They were the first family members to have face-to-face contact in two years.

They joined two British embassy officials to deliver a plea for mercy to Chinese president Hu Jintao in Beijing.

In the letter to the president, the family wrote: "We are not asking for special treatment for Akmal because he is British, but simply as a family who are devastated at the possibility of losing our son, our brother, our father, our cousin."

Kerry Brown, a former diplomat at the British embassy in Beijing, said a "great deal of pressure" was applied to any country when a Briton was given the death sentence.

"China executes a lot of people - more than the rest of the world put together," he said.

"It tends not to execute foreigners. The thinking from the British point of view is we do have good relations with China, Gordon Brown is well respected and therefore it is legitimate for us to express our concerns."

In a death penalty case, you never give up hope
Sally Rowen

But the ex-diplomat, a senior fellow of the Asia programme at the foreign affairs think tank Chatham House, told the BBC China had been "particularly aggressive in the past few years in dealing with people it doesn't like".

"We also don't know how much the central authorities are going to be able to have leverage over the authorities in Urumqi, in Xinjiang, the autonomous region which is a very problematic region anyway," he added.

'Couldn't speak properly'

Legal charity Reprieve has been working with Mr Shaikh and the organisation said a stay of execution was still possible.

Sally Rowen, legal director of Reprieve's death penalty team, said: "In a death penalty case, you never give up hope. You always keep going to the very last minute.

"China does have a history of granting reprieves right at the last minute. So there's no reason to think that may not happen here."

According to Reprieve, Chinese authorities have said knowledge of his execution is being withheld from the Briton on "humanitarian grounds".

The father-of-three will only be told 24 hours before it is due to happen, something his daughter agreed with.

"I think it's a good thing because I don't even think he would understand because we don't know how much his mental state has deteriorated," she told BBC Radio 5 live.

"We do know in one of the appeals he insisted on giving his own statements and he couldn't even speak properly, and what he was saying wasn't making much sense.

"And so I don't think him being told would mean anything or would... if anything, it might make it worse if he was aware of what was happening."

Ms Horsnell said she hoped the authorities would listen to the family's final pleas, but admitted she was not optimistic "because they haven't looked at the evidence previously".

"I'd like to be hopeful, but time just seems to be running out," she added.

China executed 1,718 people in 2008, according to Amnesty International
Last year 72% of the world's total executions took place in China, the charity estimates
It applies to 60 offences, including non-violent crimes such as tax fraud and embezzlement
Those sentenced to death are usually shot, but some provinces are introducing lethal injections

His family say he has bipolar disorder and was duped by a criminal gang into unwittingly carrying drugs for them.

If the death sentence is carried out, it would be the first time an EU national has been executed in China for 50 years.

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in London said Mr Shaikh was found with more than 4kg of heroin, which he said was enough to kill 26,800 people.

"Even in the UK, he would be punished severely for his crime," he said.

MDF, a charity for people coping with bipolar issues, said it had written to the Chinese ambassador to add its voice to pleas for clemency.

Mental health charity Sane said the Chinese authorities "may have overlooked" the impact of bipolar disorder on a person's behaviour.

A vigil is due to take place outside the Chinese embassy in London on Monday. It has been organised by a group formed on the social networking site Facebook called Stop The Execution of Akmal Shaikh.

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