Local hero: Shetland islanders celebrate as Thai man caught up in foreign prisoners row beats deportation threat and wins his right to stay

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The Independent Online

A young Thai man facing deportation from his Shetland home has won his fight to stay in Britain following a campaign by the local community.

Sakchai Makao's case became a cause célèbre after he was caught up in the furore over foreign prisoners who had been released from prison without being deported. Campaigners said that he had been selected for deportation after immigration authorities sought scapegoats in the wake of the political row.

Islanders claimed that he was a "soft target" for the Home Office and launched a huge campaign against his deportation. The campaign was backed by local church leaders, who described Mr Makao's arrest as " brutal".

More than 100 MPs signed a motion supporting his case. Shetland islanders rallied to his cause, with more than 8,000 people ­ one in three of the population ­ signing a petition demanding his release.

The 23-year-old is now preparing to fly back to his island home today after an asylum and immigration tribunal ruled that he could stay in Britain.

"I'm absolutely overjoyed and over the moon," he said after the hearing. "It has been a very difficult last few weeks but because of the support I have received from home it has helped keep my spirits up. I think there is a lot of people to thank for a lot of hard work in the Shetland community and without them this could not have happened."

The Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, Alistair Carmichael, who backed the campaign, said: "This has been a shocking and shameful episode from the Home Office. This case has come from the political fall-out surrounding the foreign prisoners scandal."

Mr Makao has lived on Shetland since he was 10 and his one brush with the law was four years ago when, during what was described as a "moment of madness" following the death of his Scottish stepfather, he set fire to a car and a mobile cabin. He served eight months in jail and, despite his crime, was welcomed back and rehabilitated into the small island community where he worked in the local leisure centre.

The popular young athlete, who represented Scotland in the long jump as a teenager, had never gone back to Thailand and had forgotten the language. Nevertheless, he was arrested in a morning raid on his home last month and flown to the mainland before being taken to the high-security Durham jail ­ without access to a lawyer. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate served him with a notice of deportation based on the fact that he had committed a serious crime.

Mr Makao's detention came at a time when the Government was facing severe criticism over its inability to find more than 1,000 foreign prisoners who had been released without deportation, including murderers, child sex offenders and rapists.

Yesterday, a judge of the asylum and immigration tribunal at North Shields,North Tyneside, allowed Mr Makao's appeal against deportation and said that he could remain in the Shetland islands. Cheers erupted in the courtroom around Mr Makao as the judge announced his decision.

Hugging his mother and sister, Mr Makao said: "I think everyone has done an absolutely brilliant job. When I listened to the judge I got a big feeling in my stomach and I thought I was going to cry, but I didn't want to cry in front of everyone. I didn't really want to think about the possibility of going back to Thailand because it would have been really hard to start all over again. When I get back to Shetland on Saturday [today] I am just going to go and thank everyone for everything. I think everyone will be there to see me arrive."

The judge said he would give reasons for his decision later, in writing. The Home Office can appeal against the ruling.

James Johnson, manager of the Shetland Recreational Trust, who kept Mr Makao's job open for him when he went to prison, said: "We are absolutely over the moon ­ totally delighted ­ and the whole of the island feels the same. Sakchai has lived here most of his life and is a very active member of the community.

"He made a mistake and paid for it but he should not ever have been deported to a country that he doesn't know any more. We will be having a pretty big party for him when he gets back."

Mr Makao is expected to fly to the island today. Mr Carmichael said: " It is wonderful that this decision has been made but it should never have come to this. Sakchai was just low-hanging fruit for [the Home Secretary] John Reid and [the Immigration minister] Liam Byrne at a time when they were under fire.

"This may be the end of the story for Sakchai but it should be the beginning of an inquiry into what John Reid and Liam Byrne are doing."