Freed football fan Michael Shields spoke today of his "living hell" after he was pardoned over a crime he did not commit.
The 22-year-old applauded his family and supporters, saying he knew he "would never walk alone" during his long fight for freedom.
In a statement read out at a press conference on his behalf by the Bishop of Liverpool James Jones, he said: "The last four years have been the hardest four years of my life.
"They have been a living hell."
Shields went on: "And I am only sitting here today thanks to the love, support and tireless campaigning of a number of people, some of whom are here today.
"In particular, I want to take this opportunity to say a public thank you to Councillor Joe Anderson, who led this campaign.
"I'd also like to thank Louise Ellman MP, Arlene McCarthy MEP, Bishop James Jones and my legal team, John Weate and Peter Weatherby.
"All have been so solid in their support for me and my family.
"Most of all I want to thank my mum and dad, my sisters, my family and my friends, who never for one minute doubted my innocence and who stood by me every step of the way.
"I couldn't have made it without their love.
"It's a hard thing to be locked away for a crime you did not commit.
"I was just 18 when I was arrested.
"I'm now 22 and face having to rebuild my life which was shattered by the failure of two legal systems, one here in the UK and one in Bulgaria.
"Today is a happy day for me but one of mixed emotions too.
"I am a free man, yes, but it should not have come to this.
"I now face a hard battle to adjust to normality.
"To find a job. To resume friendships. To build an ordinary life.
"I would like to extend my sympathy to the family of Martin Georgiev, who was the innocent victim of an unprovoked attack.
"He and his family, like me and mine, have been denied justice for four long years.
"My priority now is to spend time with my loved ones, to slowly begin to plan for a future as an innocent man.
"I would like to say a massive thank you to all those people out there - including Liverpool and Everton football fans - who have supported me and my family over the last four years by writing letters, by protesting, by marching.
"Your voices were heard.
"Thanks to you, I knew I would never walk alone. Thank you."
Shields' father, Michael senior, recalled the moment he and his wife Marie learnt the news of their son's release today.
Mr Shields, a window cleaner, said: "We are feeling elated, it has taken such a long time.
"It is a big weight off our shoulders and we've been knocking on the door for four and a half years.
"It was a very emotional phone call which came directly from Jack Straw.
"We just thanked him for all the work he has put it.
"It's such a special day, we are so pleased to have him back with us."
Mr Anderson, an Everton fan, praised Shields for his dignity.
Saying the case was the "most serious miscarriage of justice in modern times", the councillor added: "I am just delighted he is out.
"He deserves to be.
"I have known this man for four and a half years and, sorry to get emotional, he is like a son to me.
"I knew full well he was innocent and I have seen him grow into a mature young man who is not bitter."
Mr Anderson said the campaign team experienced several lows during the fight for freedom.
"But Michael took each blow with remarkable dignity and fortitude," he said.
Shields, wearing a black Liverpool FC T-shirt, sat quietly throughout the press conference, which lasted nearly an hour.
Shields' legal team said it was always his intention - and remained so - to be completely cleared by a Bulgarian court.
Mr Weate admitted it was "regrettable" that it had taken four years and three months for him to be freed.
The solicitor said efforts had first been concentrated on convincing the Bulgarian courts to re-open the case before they turned their attention to the UK Government.
That included seeking a High Court ruling to prove that Mr Straw did have the power to pardon Shields.
The final breakthrough appears to have been made when Shields' parents met Mr Straw in his Blackburn constituency last month.
At that meeting, Mr Weate said, new evidence which was "corroborative" with the alleged Sankey confession was presented.
Information was also provided to the Justice Secretary by Merseyside Police.
The legal team would not be drawn further on the detail of the new information.
Barrister Mr Weatherby said: "Jack Straw, in issuing this pardon, has asserted Michael is morally and technically innocent.
"We would hope the Bulgarian authorities would have regard to what Jack Straw has said and re-open the investigation."Reuse content