6 August 2009

MacAskill’s Two-Track Railroad: part 3/10
Ronnie Biggs
6 August 2010

Note: The posts in this series are not conclusive, but rather what I was able to learn before the anniversary arrived, sporadically updated later. Any suggestions from knowledgeable readers to improve the content will be gladly appreciated.

<< previous: 5 August
next: 9 August >>

One year ago today infamous English criminal Ronnie Biggs was released from prison on compassionate grounds. Way back in 1963 he and a small gang had waylaid a mail train and made off with several million pounds in cash. One man, conductor Jack Mills, was quite severely beaten in the process, but no one was actually killed. Biggs was caught for this audacious venture, the famous Great Train Robbery, and jailed for 30 years. But only a year in he escaped prison in 1965, fled overseas and changed his face. He continued his globetrotting exile for decades, becoming something of a folk hero and cutting records with punk bands to flaunt his continued freedom. [source on Biggs throughout: Wikipedia]

As he aged, Biggs finally changed his tune and, hoping to return home one way or another, voluntarily surrendered in mid-2001. Coincidentally, this was just a few months after al-Megrahi was convicted and sentenced for his apparently solo "role"in the bombing of Pan Am 103. Their parallel imprisonment is interesting. In reality, neither man killed anyone, though one nearly did, and the others' conviction was for killing scores of innocents. As they started out in 2001, the Libyan had a light 27 years to life, and Biggs had 28 remaining of an original 30-year sentence. Both had turned themselves over to authorities, one expecting to continue his sentence, one expecting to be acquitted of the false charges.

Unlike Megrahi, Biggs had health problems from the beginning - circulatory issues and heart attacks. He began serious lobbying for release on compassion grounds in 2007, two years before Megrahi did. In January 2009 he suffered a series of strokes, and it was announced he would be released later that year, in August. A parole board tried to shift this up to 4 July, but UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw vetoed it - Biggs was still "wholly unrepentant." He was only released on 6 August, just before his 80th birthday. Mr. Straw stood down that time - repentance or another month would suffice it seems.

As Biggs was wheeled out of the jail, Megrahi was awaiting the same decision. Just three days earlier he'd gotten the magical 3-month ticket to bolster his two-week old application. Unlike Biggs, Megrahi had an appeal full of terrifying promise - bribed witnesses, flawed evidence, unsound judgments. Under compassionate release, this could stand and be pursued by a successor after Megrahi's death, unless voluntarily surrendered, and that was not to be hoped for. He wanted to go home sick if necessary, but innocent and free if at all possible. But that was not to be.

The final parallels are the two men's unexpected early release on compassionate grounds at remarkably similar times - Megrahi would walk out only two weeks after the train robber - and their failure to die soon afterwards. Biggs had no specific 3-month prognosis, but his health improved on release and he's still alive now a year afterwards. Megrahi is nearing his own one-year mark and seems likely to match it - and that dire August prognosis can be considered seriously challenged.

As for the relevance of these two stories unfolding jointly like this, I cite "Rolfe" on an intriguing potential subtext:
[W]e released a notorious criminal (coincidentally not called Barabbas) who had been refused compassionate release, just to smooth the path for Megrahi's possibly cruelly-premature release. Biggs was refused compassionate release on 1st July 2009. Might have been difficult to release Megrahi if Biggs was still banged up. The Scottish government was known to be resistant to the prisoner transfer deal. So Biggs was released on 6th August, so Megrahi's release on 20th August could go ahead. [source]
Addendum: a little deeper on the Biggs story:
Jack Straw's 1 July refusal to allow the man his early freedom was a startling and unusual move in itself. Recalling that he had voluntarily turned himself in to "face the music," had suffered a series of strokes, was unable to speak or walk, had broken his hip, and had pneumonia. He had an ambiguous folk-hero status, for the most famous robbery in recent history. He was never intended to die in jail. Yet he wasn't quite sorry enough for his actions which, again, never ended a single life.

The Daily Mail, which reported “shock” at the news in its (original) headline quoted a Tory MP in disbelief “'The prisons are bursting at the seams … but one fairly doddery and very frail old man is being kept in prison.” Biggs’ lawyer called the ruling “perverse,” and his son called him a “political prisoner.” Many more could see a cheap ”tough on crime” stance and chasing headlines, but the headlines were mostly bad and he was seen as just mean. A badly planned attempt at toughness? Or another motive altogether? (see 19 August)

Despite the toughness, ironically, the scheduled release date of 6 August had the strange advantage of coming out as a birthday gift to Biggs – two days shy of his 80th, and of 46th anniversary of the robbery itself, Biggs’ 34th birthday gift to himself.

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