BEIJING - A British man convicted of smuggling drugs into China was told on Monday he would be executed in the next few hours, as his family made a last-minute plea for clemency, arguing he is mentally ill.

Two cousins of Akmal Shaikh, 53, delivered the news to him in person at a jail in Urumqi, capital of western China's Xinjiang province, they 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, said Soohail Shaikh in a statement released by human rights charity Reprieve.

The execution was set for 10:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. British time) on Tuesday. Prisoners' rights charity Reprieve said he would be the first European to be put to death in China since 1951.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has asked China not to execute Pakistan-born Shaikh. While unlikely to cause a diplomatic rift, the case could harden British public opinion against China.

The Government has raised its concerns, made clear our opposition to the death penalty, and requested a full mental health assessment, a Downing Street spokesman said.

We will remain engaged in the coming hours.

Shaikh's defenders say he is delusional and was tricked into smuggling 4 kg (9 lb) of heroin by a gang who promised to make him a pop star. Arrested in 2007, a Chinese court rejected his final appeal on December 21.

Reprieve posted on the Internet a recording Shaikh made of his song, Come Little Rabbit, which it described as dreadful but which he believed would be an international hit and help bring about world peace. Shaikh's family says he has bi-polar disorder.

We feel that Akmal's reported history of irrational behaviour can only be attributed to a mental imbalance which we would hope merits a re-evaluation of his case, his cousins said at Beijing airport.
We beg the Chinese authorities for mercy and clemency to help reunite the heartbroken family.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said last week: The case has been processed in accordance with the law ... The defendant's litigation rights and legitimate treatment have been fully granted.

(Reporting by K.J. Kwon in Beijing and Rosalba O'Brien in London; writing by Lucy Hornby; editing by Robin Pomeroy)