The football fan, his fight for freedom, and a dilemma for Jack Straw

Michael Shields says he is an innocent man. The Government has the power to pardon him – but risks provoking a diplomatic row
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The Independent Online

False dawns have become an unwelcome feature in the lives of Michael Shields, his family and supporters. It has been more than four years since the 22-year-old was convicted in Bulgaria of hitting a barman with a paving slab after Liverpool's Champions League victory in 2005. In that time, a series of revelations and legal victories, which saw him transferred to a British prison, have periodically made them feel his ordeal would soon be over.

On the strength of the evidence supporting Shields' innocence, anyone new to his case could be forgiven for wondering what was stopping the wheels of justice from turning more quickly. New eyewitness evidence has emerged, appearing to put him in the clear. Others involved in the attack are said to have admitted he had nothing to do with it. He passed a lie detector test. And another man signed a confession to the crime.

So when in December, Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, was told he had the power to pardon Shields, freedom seemed around the corner.

But that decision has been delayed and delayed. It is promised in the next week, but Shields and his team are far from sure of the outcome.

What has turned an apparently straightforward decision into a four-year saga has been the testing dilemma which Mr Straw faces. Giving Shields his freedom may seem the right thing to do, but Mr Straw has long worried about the effect issuing a pardon would have on the plight of other Britons stranded in the world's worst prisons. He fears that other countries would be far more reluctant to send prisoners home if they thought they would then be freed on the whim of a politician. Yet it is a decision he can no longer put off.

His first instinct was to wash his hands of the case, arguing that the extradition treaty with Bulgaria which brought Shields back to a British prison in 2006 prevented him from granting a pardon. But that did not satisfy Shields, who took Mr Straw to the High Court over his ruling. Again, there were delays. Mr Straw's legal team waited until the last possible day to submit their arguments, a delay which Shields's father says could ultimately cost his son three precious weeks of freedom.

Mr Straw was told by the court that he could not reverse the decision of the Bulgarian court, despite a plethora of concerns over how it was reached. However, Mr Straw was also told that in one crucial area, he was wrong. He did have the power to pardon Shields if new evidence had come to light. That evidence was compelling. A witness had come forward, who claimed Shields was not present when the attack occurred. Shields has always claimed he was in his hotel room, asleep, when a boulder was thrown at the head of a local waiter, Martin Georgiev.

Another man staying at the resort where the attack took place, Graham Sankey, submitted a signed confession through his solicitor. The confession was not considered by the Bulgarian court as Mr Sankey refused to appear before it.

Yet legal experts maintain that the implications of a pardon are profound. "Jack Straw is in a dilemma," said Robert Roscoe, a criminal lawyer. "There is nothing to support the new evidence other than his and his adviser's judgment. It may set a precedent for more pardons.

"It is in everybody's interest to have people here rather than locked up in some obnoxious cell, so one would be worried that could be put at risk... Countries have got to be confident that if they do remit somebody who has been convicted in their judicial process, that the sentence will be upheld and won't be substituted."

Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP campaigning on behalf of Shields, admits the decision involves large considerations. "It inevitably takes time. He has to consider the impact of the new evidence. I think it is very powerful. And other cases should not interfere in justice for Michael."

While hopes were high among Shields's parents and supporters that he would be freed by the end of last year, no announcement came. When Mr Straw did respond, he said he would reach a decision by May. First, as an extra precaution against offending a foreign government and jeopardising future co-operation with them, he asked Merseyside police to examine the new evidence.

The Independent understands that the Merseyside police inquiry finished nine weeks ago, leading to further accusations that Mr Straw and his adviser, the government QC David Perry, were dragging their feet.

"I could have read War and Peace three times in that period," said Joe Anderson, the Liverpool councillor who has led the still fierce local campaign to have Shields released. Others are even less sympathetic. Shields's father, also Michael, has lost patience with Mr Straw. "He doesn't care about other people. He doesn't care about Michael. He's a complete disgrace. I appealed to him as a father, but it hasn't done anything." Mr Straw has done everything he can to isolate himself from Shields's campaign, refusing to communicate with his legal team while he makes his decision. "It is the first time in my career, from the Magistrates' court to the European Court of Human Rights, that I have been treated like this," said Pete Weatherby, Shields's barrister."The way they are handling this is real playground stuff."

At times, Mr Straw cannot avoid the case. He is collared at least once a week by Ms Ellman, every time they pass in Westminster's corridors. She last asked about the case on Monday and Mr Straw said he was still considering the options. In the meantime, the Shields family have suffered. Michael Shields's mother had a breakdown. His father has had a heart attack. They have been subjected to threatening phone calls and attacks on their property. Mr Weatherby had a parting message for Mr Straw, at the 11th hour: "Whatever the situation with other cases, there can be no justification for keeping someone we believe to be innocent in prison. No civilised nation can have any issues with releasing someone like that."

Imprisoned overseas: UK prisoners abroad

* Samantha Orobator, 20, from south London, has begun a life sentence in Laos for attempting to smuggle drugs. She could be transferred to the UK under an extradition treaty.

* The "NatWest Three" – Gary Mulgrew, David Bermingham and Giles Darby, all in their 40s, have been transferred to Britain from the US to serve the rest of their sentences for fraud, which end in November.

* Naheem Hussain, 24, and Rehan Zaman, 25, face execution in Pakistan for shooting two men. They were held for five years without trial and say they had confessions tortured out of them. Supporters claim the Foreign Office has done little to help.

* Yetunde Diya and Yasemin Vatansever, both 16 and students in North London when arrested, were convicted in January 2008 of attempting to smuggle cocaine from Ghana to London. They returned to the UK after serving their one-year sentences.