BEIJING, February 18, 2011 (AFP) – China has postponed the execution of three Filipinos found guilty of drug smuggling, the Philippine government said Friday after its vice president met with Chinese leaders in Beijing.

Vice President Jejomar Binay’s office released a statement in the name of both governments saying China’s top court had delayed next week’s scheduled executions, but gave no new date.

“The Chinese side briefed the Vice President on the final verdict of the Supreme People’s Court on the three Filipinos sentenced to death for drug trafficking and the decision of the SPC to postpone the execution within the scope of Chinese law,” the statement said.

The man and two women were convicted of smuggling heroin at separate trials in 2008, but Philippine officials have argued they were duped into their crimes and should face long prison sentences instead of execution.

Binay travelled to Beijing to make a last-ditch plea for their lives, while President Benigno Aquino called for a national prayer vigil in support of the trio.

Binay met with Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun, top foreign policy maker Dai Bingguo and the president of the Supreme People’s Court Wang Shengjun.

Binay’s spokesman, Joey Salgado, said he believed the trio had only won a reprieve.

“That’s the essence of it,” he told AFP when asked if the statement meant the three would still be executed at a later date.

He said the Chinese government would only say the executions had been postponed “within the scope of Chinese law”.

China confirmed the meetings with Binay in a state media report, but did not mention the executions, saying instead that the talks focused on forging “stronger” relations between the two countries.

The 42-year-old Filipino man and a 32-year-old woman were scheduled to be executed on Monday in the southeastern city of Xiamen. A 38-year-old woman was due to be put to death in Shenzhen on Tuesday.

China had originally rejected Philippine requests for a visit by Binay on behalf of the three drug mules, but softened its stance in a surprise move late Thursday.

Binay, who is due to leave Beijing Saturday, earlier said he respected the decisions of the Chinese courts but would argue during his trip that the three deserved a lighter penalty.

“We do not condone drug trafficking. However, we believe that these Filipinos were merely victims of international drug syndicates,” he said.

Aquino, meanwhile, said Friday he had sent a letter of appeal to his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao and called on all Filipinos “to unite ourselves in prayer beginning today at sundown.”

Ties between the two countries were tested last year by the death in Manila of eight tourists from Hong Kong, who were killed in a bungled rescue bid by Philippine police after they had been taken hostage aboard a bus.

Aquino sparked outrage in Hong Kong by later deciding to press only minor criminal charges against several police officials involved in the fiasco.

Manila has since made moves to appeal to Bejing.

The Philippines skipped the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in December honouring Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in an attempt to encourage Beijing to spare the lives of five Filipinos on death row, believed to include the trio.

China had been infuriated by the award of the prize to the jailed activist and pressured other countries not to attend the ceremony.