BEIJING -- A court in southern China sentenced an elderly former Japanese politician to life in prison Friday for smuggling drugs in shoes packed inside a suitcase he was trying to take to his home country.
A man from Mali was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve and a Guinean received a life sentence for packing and delivering the suitcase, according to the Guangzhou City First Intermediate Court.
Takuma Sakuragi, 76, pleaded not guilty and plans to appeal, said his Guangzhou-based lawyer, Chen Weixiong, who argued there was insufficient evidence to prove Sakuragi was knowingly carrying the drugs.
According to Chen, a Nigerian acquaintance asked Sakuragi to bring what appeared to be a suitcase full of women's platform shoes with him back to Japan. The acquaintance claimed the suitcase was intended for his wife, who works as a designer in Tokyo, Chen said, but in fact methamphetamine had been hidden in the heels of the shoes.
Sakuragi is a former city assemblyman from Aichi in central Japan. Chinese law exempts people over 75 from the death penalty, which is often imposed for drug-related offenses.
He was detained in 2013 when about 3.3 kilograms (more than 6 pounds) of methamphetamine was found in his luggage, the court said. Sakuragi planned to go to Shanghai for a connecting flight back to Japan, it said.
The other two men sentenced were identified by their Chinese names — Ali, a citizen of Mali, and Moxi from Guinea. Death sentences with two-year reprieves are almost always commuted to life in prison.
The court said Ali and Moxi were responsible for packing and delivering the suitcase, and that police seized 18.15 grams of methamphetamine at their residence.
Chen said Ali was spotted on a surveillance camera packing the suitcase, while Moxi's fingerprints were found inside the bag.
Japanese media reported the verdict in Sakuragi's case was delayed while authorities tracked down others who were involved. Sakuragi's health has declined, and prior to the sentencing he had been hopeful he would be found innocent, Chen said.
The court said the three defendants violated Chinese customs regulations by knowingly trying to smuggle drugs out of the country. It added, however, that they were given relatively light sentences because Sakuragi had not yet gone through customs with the drugs at the time of his arrest.
Under Chinese law, Sakuragi will be eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 15 years. His fate could be affected by developments in China-Japan relations, which have been relatively stable in recent years. Many Chinese remain deeply bitter over Japan's brutal occupation of parts of the country in the 1930s and 1940s and the two countries have an ongoing dispute over ownership of a group of tiny uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Convicted drug traffickers are severely punished in China. Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, a Canadian citizen, was sentenced to death in January for involvement in a methamphetamine smuggling operation in the port city of Dalian.
AP researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.