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Sep 9, 2009

Imprisoned Liverpool fan granted pardon

Liverpool fan Michael Shields, who was jailed for 15 years for the attempted murder of a barman in Bulgaria, gave a thumbs up as he walked free from prison on Wednesday after being granted a pardon by Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

The 22-year-old was convicted after a disturbance following Liverpool's Champions League victory in Turkey in 2005 but his case was identified as a potential miscarriage of justice by a High Court Judicial Review following a long campaign for his release.

He has been eligible for a pardon since December 2008, but the Justice Secretary requested more information before making his decision.

In a statement read out at a press conference on his behalf by the Bishop of Liverpool James Jones, Shields said: ''The last four years have been the hardest four years of my life. They have been a living hell.

''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.

''It's a hard thing to be locked away for a crime you did not commit. I was just 18 when I was arrested. '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. My priority now is to spend time with my loved ones, to slowly begin to plan for a future as an innocent man.''

Shields was arrested in Varna on May 30, 2005 and was later transfered from a Bulgarian jail to Thorn Cross Prison.

Mr Straw met with Shields' parents on August 28, when they presented new evidence which convinced him of Shields's innocence. Following that meeting he recommended to the Queen that Shields be pardoned.

Shields' solicitor John Wheate said: "At first Michael couldn't believe it after all these years and knock backs. But now he is absolutely ecstatic and so are his family."

Mr Straw said he was told by Shields' parents about a meeting between members of the Shields family and another man accused of the attack on barman Martin Georgiev, who was struck on the head with a rock. Mr Straw was told the man, Graham Sankey, confessed to the attack on the second day of Shields' trial in Bulgaria.

He said: "I was told in the course of the visit that the man made an oral confession in front of several other people. This episode, I was told, happened on 22 July 2005, a day after the start of Mr Shields' trial in Bulgaria.

"I will not set out in this statement all the evidence that has come to light over the last two weeks but suffice it to say that there is very good reason to believe I was being told the truth. This, in my view, profoundly changed the credibility of the various accounts of what actually happened in this case.

"I have concluded, having looked carefully at all the evidence now available, that Michael Shields is telling the truth when he says he is innocent of the attempted murder of which he was convicted in Bulgaria. That being so I have recommended to Her Majesty the Queen that he should be granted a free pardon.

"Mr Shields is being released from prison today and will return home to his family a free man."

After he was told of the confession, Mr Straw asked Merseyside Police to make further inquiries. Details of the evidence, and of what the police uncovered, has been passed to the Bulgarian authorities.

The alleged confession by Mr Sankey, an electrician from Liverpool, had been ruled inadmissible at Shields' trial. Mr Sankey's solicitor later suggested it may have been an entirely different fight in which his client took part.

A Downing Street spokesman said Prime Minister Gordon Brown was "very supportive" of the decision to pardon Shields.