Britain to free great train robber Biggs


June 18, 2010 Updated Aug 6, 2009 at 5:11 PM EDT

Ronnie Biggs, who spent 35 years on the run for his part in the 1963 heist known as the Great Train Robbery, is to be released from jail, the British government said Thursday, as his lawyer warned he was dying.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the release on compassionate grounds was based on doctors' advice that the condition of the 79-year-old, once a celebrity fugitive, had deteriorated and was not expected to improve.

Biggs is in a prison hospital in Norwich, eastern England, with pneumonia. A series of strokes has also left him bedridden and barely able to communicate.

Straw last month rejected Biggs's application for parole on the grounds that the robber was "wholly unrepentant" about his crimes, but he said the decision on compassionate release was based on "different considerations."

"The medical evidence clearly shows that Mr Biggs is very ill and that his condition has deteriorated recently, culminating in his re-admission to hospital. His condition is not expected to improve," Straw said.

Michael Biggs, who has campaigned for his father's freedom, said he hoped Biggs would live long enough to see his 80th birthday on Saturday -- 46 years to the day since the robbery.

"It was shocking, it was lovely, I haven't felt like this since my daughter was born," an emotional Biggs said of being told of his father's release.

"Hopefully I will be able to spend some quality time with my father tonight up in Norwich," he told Sky News.

The so-called Great Train Robbery saw a 15-strong gang hold up a London to Glasgow mail train and make off with 2.6 million pounds (4.3 million dollars) in the money of the day, a huge sum at the time, at a railway bridge north of London.

Most of the cash was never found. The train driver, Jack Mills, was hit on the head during the robbery and died seven years later without ever making a full recovery.

Biggs played a minor role in the hold-up but was jailed for 30 years in 1964. He subsequently escaped by scaling a prison wall and jumping onto the roof of a furniture van.

On the run for decades, he fled to France, where he had plastic surgery, and Spain before heading to Australia. But he eventually settled in Brazil, where he was often pictured partying in British newspapers.

Detectives travelled to Brazil in 1974 in the hope of catching him, but they were thwarted because Biggs by then had his son, Michael, with his Brazilian girlfriend, making him legally untouchable.

He nevertheless handed himself over to the British authorities in 2001 amid a blaze of publicity. Biggs said his last wish was to enjoy a pint of beer in an English pub by the seaside before he died, but he was sent back to jail.

His lawyer Giovanni Di Stefano said Biggs was unlikely to leave hospital.

"He is being released effectively to die and that cannot be considered a victory. But it's a victory for common sense and Mr Straw has made the right decision," he told Sky News.

He added: "This man is ill, he's going to die, he is not going to any pub or going to Rio, he is going to stay in hospital."

If his condition was to improve, Biggs would be transferred to a nursing home in Barnet, north London, near his son's home.

The three prison service staff watching Biggs in hospital will be withdrawn on Friday, once the licence for his release is finalised.

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