China executed a British man convicted of drug smuggling on Tuesday after rejecting a string of appeals from the British government and last-minute pleas from his relatives to spare his life.

akmal-shaikh-cp-7874191

Akmal Shaikh, shown in this undated photo taken in Warsaw, Poland, was scheduled to be executed in China early Tuesday for drug smuggling. ((Luis Belmonte Diaz/Reprieve/Associated Press))

Akmal Shaikh, 53, became the first European citizen to be executed in China in more than half a century.

The execution was confirmed by the British Foreign Office, which issued a statement Tuesday condemning the action.

Shaikh's family maintained that he was mentally unstable and was unwittingly lured into the crime.

Shaikh was arrested in 2007 for carrying a suitcase with almost four kilograms of heroin into China on a flight from Tajikistan.

He told Chinese officials he didn't know about the drugs and that the suitcase wasn't his, according to Reprieve, a London-based prisoner advocacy group that helped with his case. He was convicted in 2008 after a half-hour trial.

It's not known how Shaikh was executed. China, which executes more people than any other country, is increasingly doing so by lethal injection, although some death sentences are still carried out by a gunshot in the head.

Cousins broke news to Shaikh

China had planned to tell Shaikh of his death sentence 24 hours before it was to be carried out — a procedure that is not unusual, Reprieve said.

But the news was broken to him first by his cousins, who visited the prison hospital in far western China where he was being held Monday.

"He was obviously very upset on hearing from us of the sentence that was passed," Soohail Shaikh said.

The cousins were given a bag of Shaikh's belongings Monday. Two British diplomats accompanied the cousins but said they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also spoke with China's Premier Wen Jiabao and wrote several times to Chinese President Hu Jintao about Shaikh's case, but to no avail.

"I believe we have done everything we possibly can," said Ivan Lewis, a Foreign Office minister, after meeting with the Chinese ambassador in London late Monday.

With files from The Associated Press