Charity worker Ian Stillman is a free man today.ADAM NICHOLS reviews the case experts said was a serious miscarriage of justice

THIS is the email I've been longing to write. So said Ian Stillman's sister, Elspeth Dugdale, as she sent the message "Ian is free!" to supporters across the world.

Her 52-year-old deaf, diabetic and severely-disabled brother had, only minutes before, stepped from his cell high in India's Himalayan foothills.

Gathered in the freezing temperatures outside the jail were his wife Sue, son Lennie, 23, daughter Anita, 20, and brother-in-law Jerry Dugdale.

They had waited outside for nine hours while officials attempted to finalise the necessary paperwork.

"They had vowed they were not leaving that prison without their man," said Ian's father Roy, 78, from his home in Tadcaster Road, York.

That determination will come as no surprise to the thousands who have supported them in their fight to get the charity worker released.

As the Evening Press launched its campaign for the freedom of this remarkable man, his mother Monica, 79, said: "We promised him we would see this through, no matter how long it took. It has taken a very long time."

Today, the Stillman family can rest, knowing Ian is on his way home.

Roy said: "Since his arrest in August 2000, every single day has been spent thinking and worrying about Ian. At last it's over."

The family's nightmare started in August 2000 with a telephone call to the Stillmans' Tadcaster Road home.

In a heartrending conversation, made even more painful because his deafness meant it was one-way, Ian told his father: "I'm all right. This matter is in God's hands now. Don't worry."

"He repeated it four or five times," said Roy.

Their emotion at his release is shared by his supporters, including the 5,400 Evening Press readers who put their names to a petition urging the Government to secure his release.

They were told today that their action was central to securing his freedom.

"Evening Press readers can feel very proud of themselves," said human rights lawyer Stephen Jakobi, who called Ian's imprisonment "the worst miscarriage of justice I have dealt with."

At St Edward the Confessor's Church, in Dringhouses, a city bastion of support for Ian, yesterday's congregations shared the family's joy.

The Rev Martin Baldock said: "At the early morning service I said: 'Good morning, have you heard the news?'

"There was spontaneous applause. People are deeply stirred by this.

"Now is the time to be delighted, for his parents and for his friends who have worked so hard. It is time to celebrate."

Ian, a committed Christian, had moved to India nearly 30 years ago.

Profoundly deaf since the age of two, he was always fiercely independent and refused to let his disability hinder his life. In 1973, eager to work with the deaf, he took a voluntary post with a charity in Madras.

It was there that he met Yesumani, known as Sue, who later became his wife, and there that he started the Nambikkai Foundation which has taught independence skills to more than 1,000 deaf Indians.

It was during a trip to expand this organisation that Ian was arrested.

He had travelled thousands of miles to Himachal Pradesh, a mountainous region which offered absolutely no help to its deaf population.

After a meeting with contacts, he was travelling in a taxi when he was stopped at a road block.

"Ian was bundled out of the car and arrested," said his father. "He had no idea what was being said because it was dark and he couldn't lip-read, and he was being spoken to in Hindi, which he couldn't understand."

He was charged with possession of 20kg of cannabis.

"Our son-in-law Jerry went over to India to see if there was anything in it. He got there and saw Ian, who assured him he knew nothing about the accusations."

Nearly a year later, he was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. He had been allowed no sign language translator, the court refusing to believe that he was deaf.

Amazingly, despite medical evidence proving his disability, two appeal court judges refused to accept that the original judge had been wrong.

Support for the Evening Press campaign to get him out of prison was immense. Immediately, thousands of readers signed a petition urging action to release him.

The Archbishop of York , Dr David Hope, told a special congregation: "I want all those present to know that the campaign has my full support and backing."

City of York Council voted to give it their support and 237 MPs backed it. The demands were strengthened as reports of Ian's deteriorating health were received. His diabetes was not being treated and circulation problems raised fears that his good leg might need to be amputated.

Calls to move him from his freezing cell to a warmer climate in the south of India went unheeded.

His wife told the Evening Press earlier this year: "He will not be able to survive, and I hope and pray that he is released very quickly."

York MP Hugh Bayley, who worked closely with Ian's parents, said today: "This is such tremendous news.

"It was terrible to jail a man who had done so much for the disabled people in India and I hope that his work with the deaf will continue."

That is the next challenge for the Stillman family to face.

Ian has been granted clemency because of his ill health. He has not been cleared of the drug possession charge and he must leave the country.

At the moment, he is in a flat in the grounds of the British High Commission in Delhi as arrangements are made to fly him back to Britain, probably at the end of this week.

His wife is returning to the Nambikkai Foundation, and hopes to arrive for an extended stay in Britain before Christmas. Ian's sister, Elspeth, said: "They have a lot to talk about. The future is down to them to decide."

A petition for a Presidential Pardon remains with the Indian Government, which could completely clear his name.

But that could take years to be considered.

"Ian is no mean fighter and he will be determined to get back to India," said his father.

"But that is all in the future. Right now, we are just delighted that our son is free."

Updated: 12:00 Monday, December 09, 2002