Media pressure to reveal details of how one of the killers of James Bulger breached his parole has provoked a "witchhunt" which threatens his safety and long-term rehabilitation, lawyers and civil rights groups warn.
Fevered speculation over the recall to prison of Jon Venables has led to publication of information about his working environment, personal circumstances and even the name of the football team he supports. Now the Government fears his anonymity is at serious risk, and he is being protected from violence in prison.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, told The Independent: "The irresponsible reporting of Jon Venables' case shows how quickly we resort to shrill headlines and whipping up public fear which can be of no use to victim, offender or those who have to work to get things right in the justice system."
She added: "Already branded a failure, this incident could be seen as evidence of how seriously a life sentence is taken: strict supervision by probation, sticking to the rules for the offender and, should things go wrong, the ever-present prospect of a return to jail."
Ms Lyon said the case could also be seen as a reason to review the age of criminal responsibility and introduce a policy of treatment rather than punishment, in line with other European countries. "Instead, we have a media witchhunt in the name of public interest which can only fuel vengeance and damage rehabilitation."
Last night it emerged that Justice Secretary Jack Straw had agreed to meet James Bulger's mother, Denise Fergus, in wake of mounting criticism over the lack of information regarding Venables' return to custody. Ministers have so far refused to give details about the case.
Jodie Blackstock, senior legal adviser at the civil rights charity Justice, said: "Despite presumptions that the breach must be serious for a recall, without knowing the circumstances, it should not be assumed that Venables has committed another serious crime. A minor breach does not deserve the massive investment in his rehabilitation being destroyed by revealing his new identity."
She said there may be sensible and justified reasons for not disclosing Venables' offence. "It is likely the parole board's decision will have to be released publicly and at that stage we will decide whether it would be in the public interest to know Venables' new identity. Until then he should be entitled to the protection of the rule of law."
Felicity Gerry, a barrister and author of The Sexual Offences Handbook, said the case raised complex issues about punishment, retribution and rehabilitation. "Although there is great public interest in finding out more information about the breach, this may not serve the overall interests of justice. It could also make it impossible to prosecute him for any offence should the jury discover his identity."
After being released on licence and with a new identity in 2001, Venables was ordered not to return to Merseyside, among other conditions.
Justifying his decision not to disclose details of the recall, Mr Straw said: "Our motivation throughout has been solely to ensure that some extremely serious allegations are properly investigated and that justice is done.
"No-one in this country would want anything other. That is what the authorities remain determined to do."