The support for the release Liverpool fan Michael Shields from jail in Bulgaria is growing rapidly. He was sent to prison for 15 years on Tuesday, even though another man confessed to the crime.
While 18-year-old Michael was facing life in a Bulgarian prison – where sometimes 20 prisoners are crammed into one cell – the real offender was fleeing from Merseyside. 20-year-old Graham Sankey and his family had allegedly received death-threats in the wake of his confession.
Graham Sankey’s attack on the Bulgarian waiter was vicious – he threw a paving slab at the head of the waiter – so Bulgarian authorities wanted to ensure someone was punished. It was the wrong person though.
The main clamour now is for Prime Minister Tony Blair, or Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to get involved in the campaign. Their colleague in the Labour party, Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman has written to Tony Blair to urge him to at least break his silence on the case. She wrote: "This is a grave miscarriage of justice and I urge you to make strong representations to the Bulgarian authorities to ensure that justice will be done. It cannot be right for Michael to languish in jail for 15 years when someone else has confessed to the crime."
Michael’s father, also named Michael says that pressure on Blair and Straw is the way most likely to bring success: "We need to pile the pressure on Tony Blair and Jack Straw because Michael is a British citizen who has had a terrible injustice carried out on him. I’ve spent the morning in London and everyone is talking about Michael’s case here."
The British government is busy with terrorist issues at the moment, the main headlines are all about the bombings and attempted bombings in London. Of course it is right for these issues to receive so much publicity, but Michael’s plight should not be allowed to drift into the background. Mr Shields said: "The Government can’t hope that this just dies down and they can sweep it under the carpet. They need to intervene directly and get Michael’s appeal sorted out."
The paving slab that was supposedly thrown by Michael, but really thrown by Graham Sankey, was never tested for DNA evidence. There is no evidence that Michael was out at the time of the attack on the waiter, Martin Georgiev, 25. He said he was sleeping, and the evidence came from identity parades. He even had to borrow some clothing – a white T-shirt – as the description of the attacker included that he’d been wearing a white T-shirt. Michael did not have a white T-shirt with him, let alone was he wearing one.
Mr Georgiev was left with a three-inch hole in his skull, and with part of his brain exposed. Sankey, 20, admitted the attack but refused to sign a statement, knowing he was in serious trouble if he did. This electrician is walking free after committing such a savage attack, yet nobody in authority seems to be concerned.
Without a signature, the Bulgarian judge decided that the confession was not admissible. Despite this evidence – signed or not – casting doubt on the conviction of Michael, the judge chose to continue. An adjournement would probably have taken place had this happened in Britain, whilst further investigations were carried out.
Sankey is not willing to face the music for what he did that night. As well as ruining the life of father-of-two Mr Georgiev and his family, he’s also ruined the life of an innocent 18-year-old student, and his family. Sankey’s solicitor said that Sankey would not travel to Bulgaria – he’d expected that his confession would free Michael without him having to be sent to Bulgaria. The solicitor said: "Graham firmly believed that by coming forward the case would be thrown out or adjourned. He is devastated that the judge decided to carry on regardless. In coming forward, he and his family have been through hell. The Sankey family have received a series of very serious threats which have been reported to police. As a consequence, they have been forced to leave their home. What little faith he or anyone else had left in Bulgarian justice has been totally shattered by the events of the past couple of days."
Michael and his family have now got 15 days to lodge an appeal. It was also announced today that lawyers representing Michael have made a bail application with the Bulgarian courts.
If you want to show some more support for Michael you can sign an appeal – online – demanding action from the government on his behalf. Visit http://www.petitiononline.com/shields1/ where you’ll be asked for your name and your email address. This becomes your signature on the petition. At the time of writing there were just short of 6000 signatures.
Jamie Carragher added his voice to the campaign yesterday, dedicating his goal on Tuesday night to Michael. He was speaking to the Liverpool Echo and said: "I don’t know how the justice system works in Bulgaria but hopefully something can be done. I think someone high up in the government, possibly even Tony Blair himself, should step in and fight Michael’s corner."
Jamie says the Reds players were thinking of Michael as they prepared for the game against FC Kaunas on Tuesday. He said: "We got a phone call with the news yesterday but we’ve been aware of what’s been going on throughout the whole trial. There was a banner about Michael at the TNS game in the last round and what’s happened with the verdict was on our minds last night."
Jamie said of his goal, his first for six years, "If I’d known I was going to score I would’ve worn a T-shirt under my shirt with Michael’s name on it. I want to dedicate my goal to Michael Shields and all his family.
Jamie also talked about how felt such despair over Michael’s fate: "When we got the news that not only had he been found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit but he’d also been sentenced to 15 years, our hearts sank. For myself, Steven and the other local lads in the team it really hit us. He’s one of us, a young lad who went to a game to watch Liverpool and ended up being thrown in prison in a foreign country. He must be absolutely distraught at what’s happened just as everyone in Liverpool is."
Carra continued: "He should’ve been here in Lithuania cheering us on but instead he’s locked up. Me and Stevie are heartbroken for the lad because obviously it’s an injustice."
Carra wants the government to intervene after the cowardly admission from Sankey: "There is a lad in Liverpool who has owned up to the crime and admitted it was him and not Michael."