China's legal experts yesterday urged foreigners to respect Chinese law and advised Western media to refrain from politicizing the issue of capital punishment in the case of a Briton convicted for smuggling drugs into China.
The UK media quoted a British Foreign Office spokesperson as saying that the 53-year-old drug trafficker, Akmal Shaikh, would be executed today.
"It is not a question whether the Chinese government is lenient or not, it is about China's legal system," Huang Feng, a leading international criminal law professor at Beijing Normal University, said yesterday.
Shaikh was convicted in 2008 of carrying a suitcase containing almost 4 kg of heroin to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
He was sentenced to death on Oct 29 last year by the No 1 Intermediate People's Court of Urumqi.
China's Supreme People's Court had earlier this month rejected Shaikh's appeal.
If the execution goes as planned, Shaikh will become the first European citizen to be executed in China in half a century, AP reported yesterday.
Shaikh's relatives yesterday made a last-minute visit to Urumqi pleading for mercy.
"We beg the Chinese authorities for mercy and clemency to help reunite this heartbroken family," his cousin, Soohail Shaikh, said in a statement faxed to China Daily yesterday.
Huang, however, said only the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature, had that prerogative, and that could be decided only when the law making body met.
Huang also said Western media outlets, which have always criticized China for "lacking judicial independence", should not politicize the case.
Under Article 347 of China's Criminal Law, anyone found guilty of smuggling, trafficking, or transporting more than 50 g of heroin or other drugs will be put to death. Shaikh had brought in 80 times that amount.
The smuggler's case has attracted significant international media interest, especially in the UK.
Although no organization in the UK has publicly supported the execution, message boards on some media websites are full of opinion supporting China's position.
A Timesonline reader named John Sewell wrote in a post on the website: "The man (Akmal Shaikh) got caught with 4 kg of human misery, how many peoples' lives would he have ruined if he had not been caught, he is not a victim but a drug smuggler."
The British embassy in Beijing strongly opposed the death sentence and made strong representations to the Chinese Foreign Ministry citing the drug trafficker's alleged "mental illness", The Guardian reported.
In mid-October, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu refuted allegations that the Chinese court refused to take Shaikh's mental condition into consideration. Ma said there was insufficient evidence to show he had suffered from a mental health problem.
"The court hired interpreters for him," said Ma. "Both the defendant and his lawyer participated fully in defending his rights."
"Besides, Shaikh also said that neither he nor his family had any record of mental illness," Ma added.
Ma Kechang, a professor of criminal law at Wuhan University, said: "Since the Supreme People's Court had ordered a mental health check on him and proved that his mental situation could not exempt him from being punished, his relatives have no reason to ask for another test."
"But, even if the authority had not done it thinking there was no need to do so, the decision holds water and should not be interfered with," he said.
Although some British media outlets are emotionally playing up Akmal's role as a father of three children, and alleging that the Chinese authorities are not being "lenient" enough, many Chinese netizens have expressed support for the verdict.
A Guangdong netizen said on Sina.com, a popular website in China: "The British guys should not despise Chinese law. Their lives are not more precious than Chinese. If you committed a crime that leads to the death penalty in China, why should you be exempt from the punishment?"
Another netizen, named Lian, said: "His family members could not lose him. If so, how about those Chinese families who are hurt by drugs and lose their sons or daughters?"
Mark Hughes and Cui Jia contributed to the story