by Daniel Otzen

A low-key welcome for the Liverpudlian

michael shields.jpg

For once The Sun seemed lost for words. On the day Michael Shields returned to Britain, the nation's most widely-read daily newspaper, and one-time champion of his cause, consigned his repatriation to the inner pages.

In the early days, The Sun had spearheaded the free Michael Shields campaign, missing no opportunity to protest his innocence of the crime he was convicted for by a Bulgarian court - the attempted murder of Varna chip shop worker Martin Georgiev, in May 2005. The paper even printed a handy pre-written demand for his release, which readers could cut out and send to the Bulgarian President, Georgi Parvanov. But in the event, its editors took no credit for helping to bring him back home.

So why the uncharacteristic show of humility?

For one thing, as far as those campaigning to have Shields freed are concerned, the transfer is nothing like the victory they'd once hoped for. The British authorities may have agreed to let him serve the rest of his sentence here, but Shields' supporters are adamant this is no back-door pardon.

The British government has agreed to uphold the conviction and the 10-year sentence stipulated by the Bulgarian courts. The rules which determine how long he stays in prison will be British, not Bulgarian - but both countries use similar methods to calculate actual time spent in detention. In practice, Shields is likely to be held for a further four and a half years, if anything slightly longer than he would have been in Bulgaria. The authorities here cannot simply take it upon themselves to release him.

In any case, says Joe Anderson, a councillor from Shields's hometown of Liverpool, and the man leading the campaign to free him, letting him go whilst the conviction still stands would miss the point. "I say this with the greatest of respect to the Bulgarian authorities, because we have no complaints about the way he was treated in jail, but now that he's back, where his family can visit him without having to travel thousands of miles, and people speak the same language as him, Michael himself is happy to serve his sentence. He doesn't want anyone to think the British authorities forced it. He wants to leave prison the way he went in, an innocent man," he told Vagabond.

Shields is now in a young offenders' institute not far from Liverpool. Anderson says since he arrived, local people have inundated the campaign office with cards, phone calls and emails, all pledging support. The Bishop of Liverpool said prayers of thanks, and a performance starring Gloria Gaynor and the Liverpudlian TV star Ricky Tomlinson to raise funds for the campaign was a sell-out. Charity donations from people living nearby covered most of the 250,000 leva Shields was made to pay by the Bulgarian authorities before he was allowed to leave, by way of compensation to Georgiev.

Liverpool is evidently keen to make up for the injustice it feels has been done to one of its sons. "Even now, 18 months after it first happened, whenever we cover the Michael Shields story, our sales go up," says John Tunney, a reporter on the Liverpool Echo.

People are less eager though to claim Graham Sankey as one of their own. "We don't do many stories about him these days," Tunney concedes.

Sankey, also from Liverpool, was in Varna at the same time as Shields, and later confessed to the attack on Georgiev - only to have his statement rejected by the judge hearing the Shields case. He later issued a retraction, which was little reported in the British press.

The Shields campaign is now pinning its hopes on the appeal it's filed with the European Court of Human Rights. The court cannot reinvestigate the case - instead, the application has been made on the grounds that the original trial was unfair. The refusal to consider Sankey's confession, and the way prosecution witness testimony was handled are amongst the factors which trouble Shields' legal team about the original hearing in Bulgaria.

Joe Anderson doesn't doubt for a second that he will ultimately succeed in getting Shields' conviction quashed. And when that happens, he says Shields plans to go back to Bulgaria. "When the fax comes through from the European Court of Human Rights saying he did not receive a fair trial, Michael has pledged to go back, and I'll go with him, to visit the governor of Varna, and present him to the Bulgarian people and show them an innocent man."

Eighteen months down the line, Anderson is under no illusions about how long he'll have to wait to see Michael Shields leave prison. But for him there's a principle at stake and he's ready to be patient. "If it takes time, that's what we'll do."


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