Jails chief quizzed on Martin 'bungle'

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The Independent Online

The head of the Prison Service has been ordered to report to the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, explaining why a burglar shot by the farmer Tony Martin was released early from jail, days before Martin himself goes free.

Mr Martin's local MP, Henry Bellingham, accused the Home Office of "putting the boot in" to Martin by releasing Brendon Fearon early.

Fearon was released on Friday, having served less than a third of his 18-month sentence for heroin dealing. Martin was moved from jail to a safe house on Thursday, ahead of his scheduled release tomorrow.

The farmer has served two-thirds of his five-year sentence for manslaughter after shooting dead Fred Barras, a 16-year-old who attempted to burgle Martin's house with Fearon in 1999.

Mr Blunkett has demanded a report tomorrow on the releases from Phil Wheatley, the director general of the Prison Service.

Mr Bellingham accused the Government on the BBC's Today programme of deliberately releasing Fearon at the same time as the farmer. He described the decision as "extraordinary" and said Martin had made enemies in the Home Office.

Paul Goggins, a Home Office minister, said he had "no reason to believe the Prison Service acted improperly". But the report would be prepared "in view of the high-profile nature of this case" and allegations made in the media.

Mr Bellingham welcomed the report and suggested Fearon's release was connected to the fact he had to be out of jail before he could sue Martin for shooting him in the leg. "Obviously the Home Secretary is taking seriously what I have already said, that in my judgment it just isn't a strange coincidence," the MP for Norfolk North West said.

Mr Wheatley took over as the Prison Service's director in February but the Home Office said there was no question of him being in trouble over the release.The Prison Service earlier claimed it was "a complete coincidence that these two prisoners have left prison within a day of each other".

Meanwhile, the cost of keeping a 24-hour guard on Martin, prompted by death threats made against him, has been estimated at £1,200 a day. A mobile police station has been positioned at Martin's farm in Norfolk in preparation for his release. Floodlights have been installed and uniformed officers were at the gates yesterday challenging people walking near the grounds. If maintained for a year, the guard would cost more than £400,000, according to police experts.