LONDON // Ronnie Biggs, one of Britain's most infamous crooks, celebrated both his 80th birthday yesterday and his first full day of freedom after being granted an early release from prison. It was the second time that Biggs, who took part in one of the country's biggest robberies, had cashed in his "get out of jail free" card. Unlike the first time, though, when he spent more than 30 years on the run across the world after escaping from prison, his early release had the blessing of the government.
The justice secretary, Jack Straw, who had refused parole to Biggs only last month because he had shown no remorse for his crimes, relented on Friday after being told that the aged pensioner was terminally ill. Biggs was a member of the gang that in 1963 pulled off the Great Train Robbery: the heist of a mail train that netted the 15 participants the equivalent in today's money of more than £40 million (Dh246m) in used banknotes.
Biggs received a 30-year sentence but in April 1965, after little more than a year behind bars, he escaped from Wandsworth prison in south-west London by scaling a nine-metre wall and fleeing in a furniture van. Biggs initially fled to Paris, had plastic surgery, and then moved to Australia, via Spain. When Scotland Yard tracked him down there, he fled to Brazil where he flaunted his celebrity and started a new life, taking advantage of the fact that no extradition treaty existed with the UK.
It was not until 2001 that Biggs, suffering from a heart condition and unable to pay for suitable medical treatment in Brazil, returned voluntarily to the UK where he was rearrested and ordered to serve out the remaining 28 years and nine months of his sentence. However, after Biggs, who has suffered several strokes affecting his speech and movement, had been taken to hospital suffering from pneumonia, Mr Straw ordered his release on Friday on compassionate grounds - something that normally signifies a prisoner has a life expectancy of less than three months.
On Friday afternoon, the two prison officers who had been guarding Biggs were withdrawn. He shook their hands and waved them goodbye as they left the room. His son Michael, whom Biggs fathered by his Brazilian lover, said his father was "over the moon". Flourishing his father's release papers outside the hospital, he added: "As a family, we are absolutely thrilled. "People are entitled to say what they want. My father is now a free man and that's all there is to say. It was very emotional when the guards left.
"My father still has a sense of humour. He shook hands with the prison guards and then just waved them off with his hands. "The media made Ronnie Biggs into what he is and the media is here when Ronnie Biggs is about to close this last chapter. He will now be retreating fully from public life." Far from everyone, however, is happy about the train robber's release. During the robbery, Jack Mills, the train driver, was hit over the head - some other gang members have blamed Biggs - and he never fully recovered from his injuries, dying eight years later.
Peter Rayner, a former chief operating officer for British Rail who worked with Mr Mills, told the BBC: "One can't forget and one has to be clear that driver Mills died as a result of injuries from criminals. "Driver Mills was a man who stood against those criminals and said he wouldn't move his train with its valuable cargo. Driver Mills paid the penalty for that. "So my feeling is one of concern that the perpetrators have been treated as folk heroes rather than the criminals that we on the railway believe them to be."
Simon Heffer, an influential right-wing columnist, wrote in yesterday's Daily Telegraph: "The release of Ronnie Biggs exemplifies the moral destitution of our society. "It is little wonder our country is in the mess it is when we are governed by people who appear to be either congenital idiots, or morally bankrupt, or quite possibly both. "A month ago, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, made what appeared to be the quite sensible decision that Ronnie Biggs should die in jail.
"He reversed this on the grounds that Biggs - who is 80 today - was about to die. Some of us thought that was the point." Biggs remains in hospital, though his son hopes he might be able to be moved to a nursing home. email@example.com