London, Dec 12 : Twenty-five-year-old Chinese woman He Xiuling was seen by millions on the internet laughing and joking during her final hours on death row.
Pictures circulating on the internet last week showed her asking for a black top to wear to make her look ‘less fat' for her execution.
Finally, she was seen weeping while being marched off to be shot for heroin trafficking.
But The Daily Mail has revealed that He Xiuling was not a hardened criminal but a ‘simple girl' from the countryside sucked into the drugs trade and used as a ‘mule' by a domineering boyfriend.
Worse still, it appears she was led to believe she might receive a lighter sentence if she confessed. She did just that – and was condemned to death.
At her trial Xiuling had pleaded to the judge: ‘Please give me a second chance to live. I want to live. I am still young.'
But while wealth and political connections can often secure leniency in China, Xiuling had neither.
Just nine months after her court appearance she was executed with a bullet in the back of her head.
Such was her naivety she believed right to the end that she would be spared and handed instead a 15-year jail term.
She excitedly told fellow inmates: ‘I'll still only be 40 when I'm free.'
Details of her case, gleaned from court records, official reports and interviews, are likely to further stir debate about the death penalty in China, where more prisoners are killed every year than in the rest of the world combined.
The pictures were taken inside No 1 Detention Centre for Women in Wuhan, central China on June 24, 2003. But they were deemed too sensitive for release at the time.
They chronicle the ten-hour period before Xiuling and three other women were shot – an execution timed to coincide with a United Nations no-drugs day.
The daughter of a small-time businessman, Xiuling grew up in Xiantao, a shabby city in China's rural Hubei province.
Though vivacious and outgoing, she found herself trapped in a £2-a-day factory job after finishing high school with average grades.
But aged 24, she defied her family and moved to the relatively cosmopolitan city of Zhongshan in Guangzhou, southern China, in search of excitement.
There she became besotted with a boyfriend, Wang Qizhi. When she discovered he was a drug dealer she threatened to leave him, but he won her back with gifts of jewellery and a mobile phone.
In January 2002, Wang persuaded Xiuling to take a consignment of heroin hidden in a microwave oven from Guangzhou to Wuhan and deliver it to a hotel.
She was talked into doing two more drug runs for Wang, in February and March, but on the third trip she was arrested in Wuhan and caught with 15lb of heroin. Wang fled and was never caught.
Advised by police to confess in return for the possibility of a lighter sentence, Xiuling pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death in September 2002. According to a journalist who visited her, Xiuling was convinced her sentence would be revoked.
‘Her fellow inmates told her the sentence would be changed to 15 years in prison,' said the journalist. ‘She would sing in her cell.
‘She was a simple girl who never thought her execution would really go ahead.
‘I think warders encouraged her to believe that, maybe out of kindness. But they must have known she had no chance.'
It was only a few hours before her execution that Xiuling finally accepted her fate. She penned a letter to her parents apologising for being ‘such a disappointment'.
‘You used to tell me off for being naughty,' she wrote. ‘But I never knew I would get into so much trouble. I wanted to go away and make money to send back and to look after you but it all went wrong.'
It was newspaper photographer Yan Yuhong, 36, who captured her last hours. He said Xiuling looked so relaxed because she was surrounded by fellow prisoners and warders she regarded as friends.
But in the hour before execution her mood changed.
‘She was taken to sign the formal execution papers and was surrounded by strangers,' said Mr Yan. ‘There were a lot of people staring at her and I was the only person she recognised.
‘She looked at me and smiled. I tried to give her a comforting look in return. When she left, she was in tears. To me, she just seemed like a young, lost girl. I believe she was an innocent.
‘Some people traffic drugs to make money and others do it because they are innocents. She was one of the innocents.
‘I don't think she had any idea about the damage that drugs do to society and to people.'
Yan landed his assignment when his newspaper sought picture stories to illustrate the United Nations International Day Against Drug Abuse on June 26, 2003.
‘I was there from 9pm the night before the execution until the moment they were led away to their deaths,' he said.
‘The women were a little bit surprised, but after a while they accepted me.'
His poignant images show Xiuling giggling with fellow prisoners and female warders.
‘I was surprised that the prisoners had such a good relationship with each other,' he said. ‘You might expect it of students at college together or soldiers serving in the army together, but not among condemned prisoners.
‘They are criminals, but they are human beings too. They have a good side as well as a bad side.'
Fearing an official backlash, Yan's newspaper decided not to publish the images.
But they eventually received wide exposure when they were used by a Hong Kong-based TV station's website this month.
And they have sparked ferocious debate.
One website that ran them drew 3,000 comments, with many turning their anger on Chinese officials who notoriously escape severe sentences for serious crimes.
‘What these women did is nowhere near as bad as what corrupt officials in China do,' one comment read.
‘They are the ones who should be shot.'