Straw releases Biggs on compassionate grounds

Justice Secretary's U-turn sees seriously ill Great Train Robber set free
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The Independent Online

He was given a 30-year sentence for his part in the Great Train Robbery, but after just 15 months he escaped from Wandsworth prison in south London and went on the run. Now, eight years after returning to Britain voluntarily for medical treatment and being locked up once again, Ronnie Biggs is finally a free man.

The Justice Secretary Jack Straw yesterday granted Biggs release from prison on compassionate grounds and, as of today, he is no longer a prisoner. The announcement marks a major U-turn by Mr Straw, coming just a month after he refused Biggs parole.

In a statement Mr Straw said that the two decisions "involved different considerations". He added: "I made the decision to refuse parole principally because Mr Biggs had shown no remorse for his crimes nor respect for the punishments given to him and because the Parole Board found his propensity to breach trust a very significant factor.

"In this case, I have had to consider the medical evidence against well-established criteria – specifically whether death was likely to occur soon and whether the prisoner was bedridden or severely incapacitated.

"The medical evidence clearly shows that Mr Biggs is very ill and that his condition has deteriorated recently, culminating in his re-admission to hospital. His condition is not expected to improve. It is for that reason that I am granting Mr Biggs compassionate release on medical grounds. I have therefore been satisfied that the relevant conditions have been met, which I was not in respect of the recommendation for parole."

The announcement of his release will not immediately affect Biggs as he is currently severely ill in a Norwich hospital with pneumonia. The three Prison Service staff watching him will be withdrawn tomorrow, once the licence for his release is finalised. But doctors have said there is "not much hope" for the man who is bed-ridden, fed through a tube and barely able to communicate.

Judy Totton, a spokeswoman for Biggs' son Michael, said: "He is absolutely delighted and he hopes that his father will survive long enough to see his 80th birthday on Saturday."

Biggs's legal adviser, Giovanni Di Stefano, said: "He is being released effectively to die and that cannot be considered a victory. But it's a victory for common sense and Mr Straw has made the right decision."

Biggs, from Lambeth, south London, was a member of the gang which attacked the Glasgow to London mail train in August 1963, making off with £2.6m. He was imprisoned in Belmarsh high-security prison on his return in 2001 before being moved to a specialist medical unit at Norwich prison.