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Michael Shields

Volume 467: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Alison Seabeck.]

I am grateful for the opportunity to press once again the case for justice for Michael Shields. Michael was 18 years old when, in July 2005, the Varna court in Bulgaria found him guilty of the attempted murder of barman Martin Georgiev at the Big Ben cafe, Golden Sands at around 5 am on 30 May 2005. A sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine with compensation equivalent to £80,000 was imposed.

It was alleged that Michael dropped a large rock-like stone on the head of Martin Georgiev after Mr. Georgiev had been knocked to the ground, causing a life-threatening injury. Michael has always claimed he was asleep at the Crystal hotel when the attack was carried out. Although the sentence was reduced to 10 years on appeal, the conviction stands, and after paying the fine and compensation with interest, Michael is now serving his sentence in prison in the UK.

I am convinced that there has been a miscarriage of justice. That is why I repeatedly raise Michael’s case in Parliament and work with Michael’s excellent legal team—Pete Weatherby, John Weate, and Fair Trials International—together with Liverpool councillor Joe Anderson and Arlene McCarthy, MEP for the north-west region, to seek a retrial or pardon.

Michael continues to receive strong support from the Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Reverend James Jones, who has visited him in prison in Bulgaria and in the United Kingdom. He believes Michael is innocent and has spoken to him at great length; he strongly supports the calls for his release and has raised the issue in the other place. I also thank the Bulgarian ambassador, Dr. Matev, for his courtesy and helpfulness in assisting me in pursuing this matter.

My previous representations to this House have explained the reasons for my concerns about Michael Shields’ conviction. These include the absence of forensic evidence and reliance on uncorroborated, selective witness identification. Some of the identification evidence was secured by witnesses being asked to look at the dock and indicate whether the defendant was the offender. That is known as “dock ID”. The practice has not been allowed in the UK for about 40 years. Flawed procedures include Michael being exposed to public view prior to his identification—indeed, the police took him to the scene of the crime, where he was seen by members of the public, before any trial or identification parade took place—witnesses not being separated before giving evidence and being asked to identify Michael, and the absence of other people bearing any physical resemblance to Michael in the identification parades. There was no legal representation when some of these procedures were conducted.

Today, I shall concentrate on new evidence strengthening the concern that Michael’s conviction is unsafe. I will name those identified by new witnesses as the two guilty men. I will also register two new pieces of evidence supporting Michael that are currently being prepared by his legal team.

In my speech in this House on 24 November 2005, I referred to the powerful notarised eye-witness statement from Mr. A, received after the trial had concluded. It details the events of that fateful night, and it backs Michael Shields. To date, no court has considered that evidence. Mr. A has not been questioned. He is willing to give evidence and to speak about what he has testified he saw on that night.

Four new witnesses support Michael’s case. One backs Michael’s claim to have been in bed in his hotel room at the time of the attack on Martin Georgiev. Another new witness, a hotel porter, also supports Michael’s account that he was in the hotel at the crucial time. Michael’s lawyers are currently preparing the appropriate statements and video evidence. The most dramatic new evidence, however, from two eye-witnesses present at the scene of the crime, relates to the strange case of Graham Sankey.

Graham Sankey came to the attention of the Bulgarian authorities on the night Martin Georgiev was attacked. He, together with three others, was questioned by the Bulgarian police before being released. Two of them, Bradley Thomson and Anthony Wilson, were subsequently found guilty of lesser—public order—offences and returned to the UK. The Bulgarian authorities renewed their interest in Graham Sankey as preparations were being made for Michael Shields’ trial. A letter I received from the Home Office on 16 August 2005 confirmed that the Bulgarians had issued summonses for Graham Sankey and others to appear at the trial on 21 and 22 July. The letter confirmed that the usual six weeks’ notice required had not been given and the summonses were not served. Graham Sankey remained at home in Liverpool while Michael Shields went on trial for attempted murder in Bulgaria.

After Michael was found guilty of the attempted murder of Martin Georgiev, Graham Sankey, speaking from the safety of Liverpool, issued a statement through his solicitor. In the statement, which he entitled his “Confession” and which was dated 28 July 2005, he admitted:

“I accept I must have caused serious injury to Mr. Georgiev. I read in the papers about Michael Shields’ trial and I felt that I could not let an innocent man take the blame for what I had done.”

Graham Sankey has never been questioned about his confession, and it was later reported that it had been withdrawn.

There is now, however, a dramatic new development. On 12 October 2007 a respected citizen of Liverpool signed a witness statement. It reports that Bradley Thomson and Anthony Wilson, both present at the scene of the crime and found guilty of lesser offences, claim that two men were responsible for the attack on Martin Georgiev. According to the statement, they allege that Steven Clare had punched Martin Georgiev and:

“Shortly afterwards Graham Sankey dropped a large rock on his head as he lay prone on the ground.”

The statement continues:

“Both men made it clear that Michael Shields was not present at the scene and that neither of them knew him”.

The statement also says that Mr. Sankey was an associate of theirs at the time and that they had been out drinking with him. Those dramatic allegations reinforce the case to revisit the conviction of Michael Shields. They point the finger firmly at Graham Sankey. These allegations must be subject to judicial investigation.

I and others have appealed to the President of Bulgaria to grant Michael Shields a pardon. I understand that a pardon is the only available mechanism to free Michael. A recent amnesty has been issued in Bulgaria. In addition, the President has the power to grant pardons in certain circumstances.

On 31 October 2007, Mr. Sasha Penov, chairman of the legal council for the President of Bulgaria replied to me—I understand that similar letters were received by others who had made requests for a pardon for Michael. Mr. Penov did not give a definitive decision on the request for a pardon but suggested that it could be considered by the UK Government under the provisions of the convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, including article 12 of the Council of Europe convention. Yet when I raised this issue in business questions in the House on 16 November, the Leader of the House replied that such decisions must be made by the convicting authority—in this case, Bulgaria. This situation is extremely confusing and distressing for Michael and for all those campaigning for him. Who has the authority to issue a pardon?

I received today a reply to a written question that I tabled in this House seeking information on whether such a pardon has ever been exercised by the United Kingdom. It states that no prisoner transferred to the United Kingdom under international prisoner transfer agreements has subsequently been pardoned by the UK authorities. That, however, does not mean that such a pardon could not be given, provided that the statement given by the representative of the President of Bulgaria is in fact correct.

Both United Kingdom domestic and European conventions uphold the principle of the presumption of liberty. This means that those holding prisoners must justify their detention. If the UK Government doubt the strength of the case against Michael Shields, I ask them to consider acting in two ways: to consider supporting the existing application to the Bulgarian authorities for a pardon for Michael Shields—it has been submitted by many people and has very strong support—but also to consider whether they can act in their own right, as suggested in the letter to me from Bulgaria. I understand that a royal pardon can be requested on the advice of the Secretary of State for Justice, and that the Criminal Cases Review Commission could be asked for a view as part of that consideration.

I want to place on the record my thanks to the Government for their assistance in responding to my previous requests on this matter. This includes speeding up Michael’s transfer from Bulgaria, recalculating the length of his sentence and acceding to his request to undergo a polygraph—lie detector—test. Michael is adamant about his innocence and is willing to do anything possible to demonstrate that. Ministers in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office have always been supportive in responding to my queries, and I thank them for that. I now ask, however, that the Government recognise the mounting and compelling new evidence that makes Michael’s conviction unsafe. Michael’s fate must not hang in the balance while Bulgaria and the United Kingdom debate their respective jurisdictions and conventions. Michael has strong support in his community, and his family are outstanding in their efforts. More than 16,000 people have signed the Downing street petition supporting Michael’s release. I am convinced of Michael’s innocence. Those who are unconvinced must surely accept that his conviction is unsafe.

I call on my right hon. Friend the Minister to clarify the situation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice has already agreed to meet me to discuss Michael’s position, and I thank him. I will not rest until justice has been done, and nor will Michael’s family and supporters. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to work with me to secure justice for Michael Shields.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) for raising the case of Michael Shields today. Self-evidently, she feels passionately about Michael’s case following his conviction in Bulgaria in 2005, and she has raised his case with me previously in private discussions, and with other Ministers and ministerial delegations. She is indeed working tirelessly on behalf of Michael and his family. She has also raised concerns on behalf of Councillor Joe Anderson and Arlene McCarthy MEP, who have been particularly supportive of Michael’s case and have raised these issues with the Government; whatever I say this evening, they will undoubtedly continue to do so. My hon. Friend also mentioned the noble Bishop of Liverpool, who sits in another place, where he too has raised this matter. Again, I know that he is committed to raising Michael’s case at every opportunity.

As my hon. Friend said, Michael Shields was convicted of the attempted murder of a Bulgarian national. Mr. Shields was returning from a football match in Turkey when he became involved in a stone-throwing incident that resulted in the serious injury of Martin Georgiev. Mr. Shields maintains his innocence, and his family and other supporters have mounted a strong and effective campaign to prove his innocence. As my hon. Friend said, a fellow Liverpool fan, Graham Sankey, who was arrested with Mr. Shields but released without charge, subsequently issued a statement indicating that he may have been involved in an incident that resulted in the injury to Mr. Georgiev. However, he has refused to give a witness statement and subsequently withdrew his earlier statement.

Let me say right away that I am well aware of the strength of feeling that Michael’s case arouses in Liverpool. My constituency is very close to Liverpool, which is the city of my birth, and I understand well the feelings that have been expressed. My hon. Friend and others have put forward the view that Michael is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. That strength of opinion is amply demonstrated by the petition on the Downing street website, which as of today has more than 16,000 names appended to it.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have tried wherever possible to ensure that Michael has received appropriate help and support. I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging in her speech the assistance provided not just by my Department—the Ministry of Justice—but by the Foreign Office and the Home Office. She will be aware that once the Bulgarian authorities consented to transfer Michael back to the UK, we attempted to do that quickly and without unnecessary delay on our part. Arrangements were indeed put in place to transfer him to a prison in the north-west of England—in his home region—within 24 hours of his arrival in the UK, so that he could, quite properly, receive visits from his family and friends at a convenient time. Michael continues to serve his sentence in a prison close to his home.

As my hon. Friend said, now that Michael has turned 21 he has been transferred to an adult prison where I understand that he is taking advantage of the educational and training facilities available to him, while working towards the possibility of one day transferring to an open prison. When my hon. Friend and I discussed that possibility, I explained to her how it could occur in the near future.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of Michael’s undergoing a polygraph test, which we have been pleased to grant. The governor of Garth prison has indicated that she is in principle content for the test to go ahead, provided that the chosen polygraph expert and any individual accompanying them are security-cleared. That will undoubtedly be acceptable to my hon. Friend and to Michael. I believe that there has been a request for that test to be filmed, but there is no question of that happening. However, I hope that the test itself will prove of value and that it can be undertaken speedily.

It is clear from my hon. Friend’s speech tonight, however, that Michael’s supporters—his family and many people in the city of Liverpool—feel that further action should be taken to remedy what they believe to be a serious miscarriage of justice. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for setting out the new evidence that has recently come to light. I know that she knows this, but I have to say to her that the proper place for that evidence to be considered and tested is in Bulgaria, either by a Bulgarian court or, if that is not possible, by the Bulgarian President, who has the power to grant clemency.

One of the central principles of the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, under which Michael was transferred to a prison in the United Kingdom, is that the receiving state must respect the findings of the sentencing state. Indeed, article 13 of the convention makes it clear that the sentencing state alone retains the right to review the judgment of its court. Under the terms of that convention there is limited scope for the receiving state, which in this case is the United Kingdom, to change the sentence imposed by the sentencing state. A sentence can be adapted where the sentence imposed exceeds the sentence available to courts in the receiving state for the same offence. My hon. Friend will know that Michael is serving a sentence of 10 years for attempted murder. As the maximum sentence available to British courts for attempted murder is life imprisonment, we have no power to reduce Michael’s sentence on those grounds.

My hon. Friend mentioned that following Michael’s return to the UK, his sentence is administered in accordance with British release arrangements. She is aware that following strong representations from her and others, some of whom I mentioned, the Government were able to amend Michael’s release dates to ensure that he serves no longer in custody here than would have been the case had he remained in Bulgaria. That decision has shortened Michael’s sentence, and I know that my hon. Friend has welcomed it.

The central point that my hon. Friend made concerned the potential for a royal prerogative of mercy. She has asked for clarification on whether the Justice Secretary could grant a pardon to Michael under a royal prerogative of mercy. As hon. Members will know, there are different types of pardon, but I assume that my hon. Friend would be seeking what is known as a free pardon, which would remove, as far as possible, all penalties and other consequences of the conviction. I hope that it is helpful my saying that a request to grant a free pardon to a repatriated prisoner is highly unusual, and that such a request has never been granted. My hon. Friend mentioned that I gave her my answer to a parliamentary question today, and in it I re-emphasised the situation to her.

Although the Bulgarian Government have quoted article 12 of the convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, that does not address the question whether the grant of a pardon to a repatriated prisoner is possible or appropriate under UK law. I do not wish to give Michael false hope. I know that this will be difficult for my hon. Friend and her constituent to hear, but I have to say honestly to them that it appears very doubtful whether the power to grant a free pardon extends to people convicted overseas and serving their sentence in the UK, as Michael is now doing following his conviction in Bulgaria and his imprisonment in the north-west.

Furthermore, free pardons are granted only in very restricted circumstances, and without prejudging Michael’s circumstances, they may well not yet meet them. As ever, I want to help my hon. Friend, because of both her passion and commitment to Michael’s case, and the strength of feeling of her constituents, which she represents to this House. If she wishes, I can write to her with clarification of how the royal prerogative of mercy is applied, so that Michael can consider whether he wishes to exercise that potential option.

My hon. Friend also asked whether the Government would consider supporting Michael’s application to the Bulgarian authorities for a pardon. As she has mentioned, Michael’s family are considering whether to apply to the Bulgarian President for that consideration. The decision on whether such support for an application can be provided is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I understand that both he and his officials are aware of Michael’s application to the Bulgarian authorities and are awaiting further information before making their decision on whether to support it. That information will come from, among others, Fair Trials International. I hope that that will be sorted shortly, so that my right hon. Friend can make a decision. I hope that my hon. Friend will both pursue the matter directly with the Foreign Secretary and supply further information as requested.

I have tried to indicate to my hon. Friend that my Department and others responsible for issues relating to Michael’s welfare and condition have examined the matter seriously, and are attempting to ensure that his sentence is appropriate and that his well-being is maintained while he is in prison. We must examine still further the issue of representations to the Bulgarian authorities and the question of the royal prerogative of mercy. I am sure that both my hon. Friend and her constituent will be able to make further representations to the Government in due course about any concerns about Michael’s position that are drawn to her attention.

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand the Government’s position, and I repeat my offer to write to her shortly about the application of the royal prerogative of mercy. I am grateful for the passion with which she has brought the matter to the House today, and I shall certainly reflect outside the Chamber on behalf of the Government on the points that she has raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Eight o’clock.