The surprise appearance of John Haase, 46, and Paul Bennett, 32, on the streets of Liverpool last week has angered members of the law enforcement agencies after their jailing in 1995 for their part in a pounds 15m "Turkish connection" heroin smuggling ring. The pair, who pleaded guilty, were among eight defendants sentenced by Judge David Lynch in 1995. But the judge later wrote to the Home Secretary requesting a reduction to five years.
The Home Office said that the men had provided information to Customs during the investigation which was seen as a major breakthrough in the war against drugs. It was not clear yesterday, however, whether the information related wholly to the specific facts of their case.
Mr Howard defended his actions despite his proposals to get tough on drug crime. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend, he said the judge had told him that were it not for the special circumstances that existed in this case - in terms of the lives of the men and safeguarding future operations - he would have passed a sentence of five years instead of 18.
"Under the existing law I was specifically requested by the judge to put right what he had not been able to do ... Is it seriously suggested that I should have ignored that request from the judge?" he demanded.
The affair none the less resurrects the spectre of the discredited "supergrass tariff" under which criminals used to be given lighter sentences in return for turning Queen's evidence, and the subsequent practice of dropping charges in return for information. The difference appears to have been that these two men were never identified as informants, hence the heavy initial sentence.
The two men were released after just over a year because of the impact of parole and the two years they had spent on remand. Mr Howard challenged one of his critics, John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, to say whether he would have ignored advice from the trial judge that the proper sentence was five years.
However, the deal is open to the criticism that it was done behind closed doors, against a background of the sale of huge quantities of heroin and fear of gangland violence. Haase has a conviction for armed robbery and concern over security at the committal proceedings at Liverpool magistrates' court was such that armed officers in bullet-proof vests were on guard.
George Howarth, a Merseyside MP and a Labour home affairs spokesman, said: "Given the recent history on Merseyside of armed violence, which is closely associated with drug barons, I find the decision surprising ... Understandably, local people are dismayed. I will be writing to Mr Howard seeking an explanation and an assurance that he has taken steps to safeguard the public from these potentially dangerous criminals."