Britain frees "Great Train Robber" Biggs

Fri Aug 7, 2009 10:35am EDT
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By Stefano Ambrogi

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's "Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs, who stole the equivalent of $50 million 46 years ago, was freed early from prison Friday on compassionate grounds as he lay in hospital gravely ill.

Biggs, who spent 35 years on the run, won notoriety and some popularity for his ingenuity in evading capture and for cheekily thumbing his nose at the law from sun-soaked beaches.

Even now his early release from jail for a crime that earned him a place in criminal history and made him a household name in Britain has divided public opinion.

Rail unions, who told British media he was "no Robin Hood," said he should have spent the rest of his life in prison for his role in a robbery in which a train driver was seriously hurt.

The Prison Reform Trust welcomed the news and said the jail terms of hundreds of elderly prisoners should also be reviewed.

Biggs, said to be frail and sick in hospital with pneumonia, is free to celebrate his 80th birthday Saturday with friends and family -- 46 years to the day since the heist.

"The (release) papers were signed off," a Justice Ministry spokeswoman said. Biggs is expected to stay in hospital for now, but will no longer be under guard.

With 11 other gang members, Biggs robbed a Glasgow-to-London mail train in 1963 and stole 2.6 million pounds -- about 30 million pounds ($49 million) in today's money. The crime became known as "The Great Train Robbery."   Continued...

<p>Ronnie Biggs, poses in Brazil in this September 1992 file photo. Britain's Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced on August 6, 2009, that "Great Train Robber" Biggs has been granted release from his prison sentence on compassionate grounds. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes</p>