LONDON — Britain's notorious "Great Train Robber," nearly 80 and close to death, was released Thursday from his prison sentence, but he's expected to stay right where he is – in a hospital bed.
Britain's Justice Secretary Jack Straw said he decided to release Ronnie Biggs on compassionate grounds after he fell seriously ill this week in his cell at Norwich Prison, 120 miles (190 kilometers) northeast of London.
The prison officers watching Biggs at the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital will remain overnight, and leave tomorrow, once the paperwork for his release is complete, Straw said. Biggs' 80th birthday is Saturday.
His lawyer, Giovanni Di Stefano, said Biggs was being released to die.
"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," he told Sky News.
Biggs was part of a gang that robbed a Glasgow-to-London mail train in August 1963, in what was called the "heist of the century." The robbery netted 2.6 million pounds – worth more than $50 million today. The train driver Jack Mills was hit over the head and left unconscious.
The train drivers union Aslef was quick to criticize Straw's decision to free Biggs.
"It's ludicrous that a man who was part of a gang that committed a violent crime and attacked an innocent man and hit him with an iron bar should be a person who deserves clemency," said General Secretary Keith Norman.
The gang loaded the money into a truck and fled to a nearby farm. Police launched a nationwide hunt and most of the gang was soon rounded up.
Biggs was sentenced to 30 years in jail but escaped from prison in 1965 by climbing over a wall. He fled to Brazil, where he made a living from his notoriety, regaling journalists and tourists with stories of his exploits and even recording with punk band The Sex Pistols.
His fortunes changed in the 1990s after a series of strokes left him penniless and in need of medical care.
In 2001, he voluntarily returned to Britain, surrendered to police and was sent back to jail. He was locked up in Belmarsh high-security prison in London before being moved to a specialist medical unit at Norwich prison
In addition to the strokes, he has suffered a broken hip, and is being treated for pneumonia. He is bedridden, fed through a tube, and barely able to communicate.
His lawyers sought to have him released, arguing that his age and severe health problems meant he was no longer a threat.
He became eligible for parole last month, having served 10 years of his 30-year sentence, but Straw overruled a parole board recommendation that Biggs be freed, saying he was "wholly unrepentant."
Straw said Biggs' condition changed his mind.
"The medical evidence clearly shows that Mr. Biggs is very ill and that his condition has deteriorated recently, culminating in his readmission to hospital. His condition is not expected to improve," Straw said in a statement. "It is for that reason that I am granting Mr. Biggs compassionate release on medical grounds."
Straw said Biggs must now live at an approved address and cannot travel abroad without approval from British authorities. Di Stefano, the lawyer, said that if Biggs does recover, he will move to a nursing home in Barnet, in north London.