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Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Q&A: Will Ronnie Biggs face jail?
q and a
With the news that Great Train robber Ronnie Biggs has ended his self-imposed foreign exile to face justice in the UK, BBC News Online's home affairs correspondent Peter Gould examines the legal situation facing Biggs on his return.

Q: Was Biggs's arrest on arrival inevitable ?

A: Yes. He was taken into custody moments after stepping off the plane, so there is no immediate prospect of him being granted his "last wish" of buying a pint of bitter at a pub in Margate.

He clearly missed Britain, and seems to have spent some time toying with the idea of returning home. But the thought of the reception committee waiting for him had until now stopped him from boarding a plane to London.

Although he has been able to live openly in Rio, he is still regarded as an escaped prisoner who has not completed his sentence. So he was always likely to have been arrested the moment he set foot on British soil.

It is only a loophole in Brazilian law that has kept him just out of reach of Scotland Yard. Escaping from prison is a criminal offence in itself, which leaves him open to possible prosecution and a further sentence.

In practice, the authorities here may just be content to get him back and see him return to a prison cell, given his age and the length of time he has left to serve.

Q: Will he have to resume his life sentence where he left off ?

A: Yes. For his part in the Great Train Robbery, Biggs was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Faced with what seemed like a lifetime behind bars, he decided to escape.

When he climbed over the wall of Wandsworth Prison in 1965, he had served less than two years of that sentence. When someone goes on the run the clock stops, so technically he still has another 28 years to serve.

That explains why he has been so reluctant to return home, preferring to live the life of an exile in Brazil. Indeed, he appears to have enjoyed his notoriety, and has become something of a tourist attraction in Rio, entertaining visitors at "garden parties" and selling signed photographs and t-shirts.

Had he not escaped of course, he would by now have completed his sentence and would be a free man, like the other members of the gang who are still alive.

Q: Does the home secretary have any discretion in such cases?

A: In special circumstances, the home secretary can consider whether a prisoner should be released early. This happened recently in the case of the East End gangster Reggie Kray, who was set free when it became clear he was dying from cancer.

But unlike Biggs, Kray had already spent 30 years inside, and campaigners argued that he had done his time. In the case of Biggs, Mr Straw's views are unlikely to be any different from the mood of the public.

Many people have already said they do not see why Biggs should "get away with it", having spent years thumbing his nose at British justice and living the good life in Rio.

So I think Mr Straw would take a lot of convincing about the state of Biggs' health before even thinking about the possibility of setting him free.

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