Key quote "I feel British. I don't read Thai or understand it. I love Shetland. There is nowhere I would rather be." - SAKCHAI MAKAO
Story in full A JUDGE yesterday freed a Thai-born man on bail to return to Shetland and criticised the Home Office's handling of its attempts to deport him.
Sakchai Makao had been held for two weeks in Durham prison after he was arrested on 6 June at his home in Lerwick. His detention came in the wake of the scandal over the release of hundreds of foreign prisoners who should have been considered for deportation.
But the arrest of the 23-year-old - who in 2004 served eight months of a 15-month sentence for two counts of culpable and reckless fire-raising committed while drunk - prompted a campaign by the Shetland community to secure his release.
Yesterday, at an asylum and immigration tribunal in North Shields, North Tyneside, that campaign paid dividends when Mr Makao was released on bail of 2,010 - 2,000 from two of his Shetland supporters and 10 of his own money - pending a full hearing at the same court on 7 July.
Outside the court after the hearing, Mr Makao thanked those who had campaigned for his release and professed his love of his adopted home. "I would like to thank the people of Shetland with all my heart," he said. "Their support and commitment show what an incredible place Shetland is. I am proud to be called a Shetlander."
Mr Makao moved to Shetland with his mother, sister and step-father in 1993 and has not been back to Thailand.
"I feel British. I don't read Thai or understand it," he said, adding: "I love Shetland. There is nowhere I would rather be."
His lawyers prevented him from discussing his feelings about his incarceration, but he said all he wanted to do now was to go home. "The past two weeks have been the most scary in my life," he said.
Mr Makao is expected to return to Lerwick today. His case has provoked widespread support, with more than 7,000 people signing a petition demanding his release.
The majority of his bail money was guaranteed by his employers at the Shetland Recreational Trust, where he works as a lifeguard.
It was that support which played a key part in securing his release, with even the lawyer representing the Home Office, Steve Halliday, accepting that there were people who would be looking out for him.
Mr Halliday attempted to have the date of a full hearing put back to allow more time for the Home Office to prepare its case, but his application was rejected by the judge, John Aitken, who also criticised the Home Office's handing of the case.
Informed by Mr Halliday that it might take another three to four weeks to prepare the paperwork, Judge Aitken told him: "That is quite a time. It is not a terribly complex case from the Home Office point of view."
Pointing out that Mr Makao was largely of previous good character, he added: "It is difficult to see what other complex documents need to be prepared."
Judge Aitken had already expressed frustration that he had been handed a 50-page bundle of paperwork relating to the case minutes before it was due to be heard.
In reply, Mr Halliday explained that the Home Office had been unaware there would be a bail application until late the previous day. He also revealed that he had been unable to use official documents to read up on the case and had instead relied on press reports.
Granting bail, Judge Aitken said it was clear there was no evidence of previous absconding, Mr Makao had never shown any disregard for immigration laws - and, in fact, had a history of complying with such legislation - and appeared to have strong ties with the UK.
Mr Makao will return to a hero's welcome when he flies into Shetland today to be reunited with the friends and colleagues who have led the campaign for his release.
Davie Gardner, a long-time friend who set up the Shetland for Sakchai campaign after the arrest of the young Thai national, said news of his release had been greeted with a "massive sigh of relief" on Shetland.
He said: "We are delighted that his horrendous ordeal has at least been temporarily lifted. I am delighted that sense and justice have prevailed."
Mr Makao's release was also welcomed by Tavish Scott, the Scottish transport minister and the MSP for Shetland.
• Additional reporting by Frank Urquhart