Thalidomide campaigners turn attention to long-serving prisoner


Disabled activists are calling on the government to push for the release of a thalidomide survivor who has served 18 years in prison in the Philippines for drug smuggling.

Billy Burton was handed a life sentence after he was caught trying to smuggle more than five kilogrammes of cannabis out of the country in 1992.

But the time he had to serve before being eligible for parole was increased from eight to 20 years, then 30 years and then 40 years as the government increased sentences for drugs offenders.

Burton is now not due for release until 2032, when he will be 70.

Now a campaign to push for his release is being led by one of the disabled activists who helped secure a government apology and increased financial support for thalidomide survivors in the UK.

When that campaign ended successfully in January, Guy Tweedy – also a thalidomide survivor – focused his energies on campaigning for Burton’s release.

Tweedy has written to a string of public figures to ask for their support, including the Archbishop of York and foreign secretary William Hague, has met with shadow foreign minister Ivan Lewis and is due to meet Labour leadership contender Diane Abbott.

Tweedy said: “I think the establishment has let him down. The British embassy in the Philippines should be doing more and looking for a way to get him home.

“I feel that after 18 years he has done his time. During those 18 years, murderers have come and gone and he’s still there.

“He’s a good person who did a bad thing, he knows that. The time has come now to be compassionate. Everybody deserves a second chance.”

Burton, originally from Wetherby, west Yorkshire, has serious health problems, and is currently being kept in the prison’s hospital.

Dr Martin Johnson, director of The Thalidomide Trust, which administers the compensation paid to UK thalidomide survivors, visited Burton at the prison near Manila in February.

Although Burton’s health was deteriorating – including musculo-skeletal pain and problems with his hearing and eyesight – Johnson said he was in “fairly positive spirits” but “not allowing himself to think about getting out”.

More than 15,000 prisoners are kept in huge “factory-type buildings”, he said, and have to buy or beg wood to build their own living spaces.

They also have to buy any food other than the basic ration of rice, and to protect themselves from other prisoners must belong to one of the four gangs that rule the prison.

Johnson said: “It is an environment where the weak go to the wall. Bill, with his severe arm damage, is in a really difficult position.

“We support all our beneficiaries. The money we make available basically kept him going and gave him a reasonable quality of life, along with help from the local [British] consulate.”

Johnson is trying to encourage the British embassy to find a way to persuade the Philippines government to listen to a request for clemency.

Tweedy, who is from north Yorkshire, spoke to Burton by telephone in June. He said he was “overwhelmed” by the campaign to secure his release. “He couldn’t believe that after all this time anybody would bother with him.”

The trust’s national advisory council – an elected committee representing thalidomide survivors, of which Tweedy is deputy-chair – are also backing the campaign.

Johnson said: “The guy committed a crime and that is bad, but it is 18 years and he has more than served his time and he ought to be out. That is their view. It is about mercy rather than justice this time round.”

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “Obviously we are aware of William Burton and are providing ongoing consular assistance to him all the time.”

27 July 2010