THE family of a disabled charity worker freed from the hell of an Indian jail can now celebrate Christmas together for the first time in seven years.

As Ian Stillman, 52, stepped from his cell in India's Himalayan foothills and hugged his wife, Sue, and children Lennie and Anita for the first time in 829 days, plans for the massive celebration were already being laid.

In York, his parents, Roy, 78, and Monica, 79, were close to tears at the end of their nightmare, which began with a garbled telephone call from Ian on his arrest more than two years ago.

"It's such wonderful news," said Monica at her Tadcaster Road home.

"At last he's out, and we are delighted. We haven't had much thinking time, but I know we will have such a grand family gathering this Christmas."

The last time she saw Ian - who is deaf, a diabetic and had a leg amputated after a road accident - was in 1995 when he came to Britain to have a false leg fitted.

This Christmas she will be reunited with her son at the home of her daughter, Elspeth, who headed the fight for his release.

The weekend's dramatic events are believed to have come after direct intervention from Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who met Ian's family for the first time only last month.

But his action is thought to have been a direct result of huge public pressure, including massive demand from Evening Press readers for Ian's freedom.

A 5,400-name petition was handed to the Government by the newspaper after it campaigned for his release.

"Evening Press readers can feel extremely proud of themselves today," said Stephen Jakobi, a leading human rights lawyer who took on Ian's case.

"Let's get this absolutely clear. What has led to the diplomatic action is the pressure from the public and their demanding that their MPs do something. That should not be underestimated and what the Evening Press has done is very impressive. It has had a very significant effect."

Roy said: "We owe the Evening Press and its readers. It has been an amazing effort and we are very, very grateful."

Monica said: "We got so much support from so many people. Ian is just not going to believe it."

Ian was arrested in August 2000. He was sentenced to ten years for possession of cannabis, a charge he has always denied.

The Evening Press began to campaign for his release after the Indian authorities refused to accept he was deaf. He was denied a sign language translator at his trial, effectively excluding him from taking any part.

Mr Jakobi, who has been involved with dozens of human rights issues, called it "the worst miscarriage of justice I have dealt with."

Ian's freedom came after the Indian Government agreed to grant him clemency because of ill-health.

He is now in Delhi, under the escort of the British High Commission. He is not allowed to remain in India and is expected to return to Britain at the end of this week.

That leaves question marks over the future of the charity he set up nearly 30 years ago, which has helped teach independence skills to more than 1,000 deaf Indians.

His wife, who is Indian and has been running the charity in his absence, will arrive in Britain before Christmas for an extended stay, when their future will be discussed.

His mother said: "Ian will not want to give up his work and he will no doubt be fighting to get back to India.

"But the important thing is to get him home and get the medical attention he needs so badly. We can worry about everything else later.

"Today the whole family is celebrating."

Updated: 12:19 Monday, December 09, 2002