CAMPAIGNERS described a decision by the president of the Philippines to pardon a drug smuggler from Yorkshire as “the best Christmas present ever” after he has been languishing in squalid conditions while in jail for nearly two decades.
It emerged yesterday that President Benigno Aquino III had granted Thalidomide victim William “Billy” Burton, 48, who is originally from Wetherby in West Yorkshire, the pardon from the life sentence on the grounds of his deteriorating health.
The revelation came 19 years to the day since Burton was arrested at Manila Airport trying to smuggle 12lbs of marijuana out of the country. He had faced the prospect of remaining in jail until 2032, when he will be 70.
He has been locked up in the maximum security New Bilibid prison, near the capital of Manila, as his health has deteriorated and concerns have been expressed about the conditions he has been living in while incarcerated.
Fellow Thalidomide victim, Guy Tweedy, from Harrogate, launched a campaign in March last year to free the former Wetherby High School pupil.
A spokesman for the Free Billy Burton campaign group described yesterday’s announcement as “the best Christmas present ever” and paid tribute to Mr Tweedy as “an outstanding man of compassion and determination” for his efforts.
Mr Tweedy said: “While no-one would condone what Billy has done, he has served his time in prison and his health is deteriorating. He has muscular-skeletal problems, as well as issues with his eyesight and hearing often associated with being a Thalidomide sufferer. I am overjoyed with the news, and this is certainly one Christmas present that I am so glad to have received.”
Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne, who has supported Burton’s bid for freedom given the “compelling, compassionate circumstances” of the case, also welcomed the decision to grant clemency.
Mr Browne, who discussed the case with the Philippine government during a recent visit, added: “I know that this news will be warmly welcomed by Billy’s family and his supporters at the Thalidomide Trust who have campaigned tirelessly on Billy’s behalf.”
Burton, who was born with shortened arms and twisted hands, was 29 when he got into financial difficulties while travelling the world. He attempted to smuggle drugs out of the Philippines but was arrested at Manila airport on December 26, 1992, as he tried to board a flight to Australia.
He was given a 30-year life term and initially told he would be considered for parole after eight years. But a subsequent change in drugs laws in the Philippines meant he became ineligible for parole and his sentence was increased to 40 years, with a release date of 2032.
The Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, Alec Shelbrooke, issued a plea in July to the British Embassy in the Philippines to do more to secure Burton’s release. The campaign scored a significant success in October after Burton was recommended for release by the Filipino Department of Justice.
In a letter sent to the UK last year, Burton said: “For my disrespect, lack of decency and failure to uphold moral standards when I committed a crime 18 years ago, I have only regrets. There are no excuses. I do not think, however, that only bad people do bad things — sometimes good people also do bad things.”
At a press briefing yesterday, presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte confirmed Burton must pay a 20,000 pesos ( UKP294 ) fine to a metropolitan Manila court. The other conditions of his release are that he pays his airfare home and never returns to the Philippines.
It is understood Burton will be transferred to a holding centre in the next few weeks before he is deported back to the UK.