Joy for parents as Michael Shields is moved to Wigan

Liverpool supporter Michael Shields was yesterday transferred to Hindley Prison in Wigan. The prison is said to house both and adult and young offenders in different wings. Michael was transferred to the UK from Bulgaria on Thursday, initially to Wandsworth according to most reports. However it was then reported yesterday that he’d actually been taken straight to Feltham Young Offenders' Institution, not Wandsworth, for assessments on where he should be taken next. And to the delight of his parents, he was taken to a place just 20 miles from his home.

Michael went to Bulgaria on a holiday in May 2005, with the intention of using it as means to get to Turkey to see the Reds take part in their first European Cup final in 20 years. He did get to Turkey to see the Reds lift the famous trophy, but then a nightmare faced him in the following days. He was accused of the attempted murder of a barman, Martin Georgiev, who had been badly injured when he had a paving slab dropped on his head. There is no doubt that this was a brutal attack, and the Bulgarian authorities were desperate that someone should pay for it. Not necessarily the right person though, and they seemed to decide that Michael was the one they wanted before they’d made any attempts at a thorough investigation. Michael is said to have been forced to attend an identity parade where nobody else in the line-up looked anything like him, yet those asked to do the identifying had been reminded that they were looking for someone fitting Michael’s description. In fact not only were they told of the description, Michael had been handcuffed to a radiator in full view of those who had been asked to identify him too. No forensic evidence was used in the trial. Michael is innocent, yet the authorities in Bulgaria are still working on a system that seems hundreds of years out of date. All they seem to want is to have someone go down for the crime; it doesn’t matter if the real criminal is walking free. Graham Sankey could well be that real criminal, after he made a confession that he was responsible for the attack and not Michael. He refused to go to Bulgaria to face the music though, and later changed his story. It took under two months for the questionable justice system in Bulgaria to give Michael the conviction for attempted murder.

Michael is now 20 and his parents have been through hell this past 18 months. Last night they were on local TV news in the North West and the delight on their faces was a joy to see after seeing them suffer so much. It’s the first time I’ve seen any images at all of them smiling.

The joy is only that Michael can now be visited by them without great expense. He still needs to be freed; his innocence still needs to be proved. Solicitors for the family have lodged an appeal in the European Court of Human Rights. His mother is delighted though that she’ll be allowed to see him today in Wigan, just half an hour away if the traffic’s good.  She said yesterday: “Michael shouldn't be in jail at all because he is innocent, but it is better to be in jail in Wigan than in Bulgaria, or even down in London. I spoke to him this afternoon and he was in good spirits. He told me he was fine, and he's looking forward to us visiting him tomorrow.”

As well as fighting for him to be freed, campaigners are also working on getting his sentence reduced by having British law applied to the length of the sentence rather than Bulgarian law. The family haven’t yet been told by the Home Office which system will be used. Under Bulgarian law he would be released three years before the end of his ten-year sentence. Under British rules he could be out on parole after half his sentence, which would be in another three-and-a-half years.
Labour leader, Councillor Joe Anderson, is leading the campaign for Michael and said of the possibility that the British system could be implemented: “An agreement needs to be reached between UK and Bulgarian authorities. Michael did not receive a fair trial abroad and we want that taken into consideration.”

Michael’s father, Michael Shields senior, also said they were in the dark about how long he would have to stay in prison: “We are still unsure what sentence he has to serve.”

The real hope though is that the bid in the European courts is successful, and there’s also a feeling that the UK government could use its powers to fast-track the appeal through the system. Michael’s local MP, Louise Ellman, confirmed that the fight for justice goes on: “We won't give up in the long fight to get Michael's sentence overturned.”