Bulger killers to be freed
? Toddler's mother 'devastated'
? Government confirms decision
? Pair to be released on licence

Special report: James Bulger

Staff and agencies
Friday June 22, 2001

James Bulger's killers have been granted their freedom by the parole board, the home secretary, David Blunkett, confirmed this afternoon.

Mr Blunkett confirmed the decision in a written Commons reply.

The home secretary said that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson will be released on life licences - meaning that they will be "subject to strict licence conditions and liable to immediate recall if there is any concern at any time about their risk".

A spokesman for James's mother, Denise Fergus, said that she had been informed of the parole board's decision. Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said she was "devastated" and felt "let down" by the lord chief justice, Lord Woolf.

Mr Blunkett said the licences included conditions that Venables and Thompson could not contact, nor attempt to contact any member of the Bulger family nor each other.

They will also not be allowed to enter the metropolitan county of Merseyside without the prior written consent of their probation officers.

But the licence conditions failed to placate opponents of their release.

Mr Brennan said: "Denise points the finger directly at the lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, as being the head of the liberal elite, who has basically sent a message that crime pays.

"Venables and Thompson are being released back to their families, who themselves could only dream of the living conditions they will now enjoy.

"If they had given their children love and support, as they should have done nine years ago, James would never have been murdered."

Rex Makin, senior partner in the firm of solicitors representing James Bulger's father, Ralph Bulger, condemned the decision as "expected, horrific, insensitive and badly-timed".

But the ex-offenders charity Unlock welcomed the decision.

Bobby Cummines, the charity's deputy chief executive, said: "God forbid we become a country where we cannot forgive children."

He said the murder was "unforgivable", but the killers were children too. "On that day three children's lives were lost," he said.

Venables' parole hearing took place at a secret location on Monday and Tuesday, followed by Thompson's two-day appearance at a different venue.

The partners in the February 1993 murder could now be freed within days.

Venables and Thompson were just 10 when they abducted two-year-old James from the Strand shopping precinct in Bootle, Merseyside, before torturing him and battering him to death on a railway line.

Grainy security camera images showed the toddler being led off by the hand to a violent death.

The crime shocked the world, and many were appalled by footage of adults hurling abuse at the young suspects after their arrest.

Last October Lord Woolf effectively ended the boys' tariff - the minimum period they must spend in custody.

He ruled that it would not benefit the boys to spend time in what he dubbed the "corrosive atmosphere" of a young offenders' institution.

Had Venables and Thompson not won their freedom, they would have been moved from local authority secure units in which they have spent the last eight years, into young offenders' institutions upon their 19th birthdays in August.

The teenagers have been granted an open-ended high court injunction protecting their anonymity when they are released from detention with new identities.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the family division president, said the two had to be protected due to a "real possibility of serious physical harm and possible death from vengeful members of the public or from the Bulger family".

Thousands of pounds have been spent on creating new identities for the pair, including new social security numbers, bank accounts, ID cards and even birth certificates. New identities may also have to be created for close family members.

Keeping their real names secret once they are back in society will create unique problems for police and probation officers, and some fear the whole enterprise could put the public at risk.

When free, they will be "on licence" forever and probation officers will be required to keep a close eye on them.

But probation service officials believe this will be difficult if officers do not know the true background of their crimes.

"The probation officers will do their utmost to ensure the public are protected," said Harry Fletcher of the probation officers' union Napo.

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