IAN Stillman today hugged the family he has been separated from for two years - and thanked Evening Press readers for demanding his freedom.

The seriously ill and profoundly deaf charity worker flew home to Britain after his dramatic release from an Indian prison.

He was met at Heathrow Airport after his flight from Delhi by his sisters, nephews and nieces - relatives he must have thought he might never see again.

He plans an emotional private reunion with his parents, Roy, 78, Monica, 79, from Tadcaster Road, York, tomorrow.

But, clearly overjoyed to see his family today, he frantically sign-languaged conversations to about 20 people who had travelled to meet him, including his niece Emily Noble's 14-month old son Luke, born while Ian was in prison.

His emotional return was watched by a massive press pack.

Ian, jailed for ten years for cannabis possession, was freed following direct intervention by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, as his deteriorating health caused serious concern.

But Ian said he would still be in prison if he had not won the support of the public.

More than 5,400 Evening Press readers signed a petition demanding his release. He said today: "This would not have happened without the support of so many unknown individuals.

"I particularly want to thank the city of York and the thousands of people who signed the petition and showed concern and interest in me. Thanks also to those who extended support for my parents.

"After some rest and medical treatment I am certainly looking forward to paying a visit to York.

"It's brilliant to be home. I really had no idea I would be home for Christmas. Everything happened so fast. I now want to enjoy Christmas with my family." Ian's wife, Sue, and daughter, Anita, 20, will fly to Britain from India next week to join him for Christmas. He will consider his future then.

He said: "I want to make it very clear that, even with the difficulties of the past two years, I am still committed to my work in India. I hope that in time I will be allowed to return to my work.

"But my first priority is to get medical treatment before my problems get worse."

Ian is diabetic and had a leg amputated following a road accident.

He was arrested when he was stopped in a taxi in the Indian region of Himachal Pradesh and accused of possession of 20kg of cannabis.

The Evening Press started to campaign for his freedom after he was denied a sign language translator at his trial, excluding him from taking any part. Human Rights lawyer Stephen Jakobi called it the worse miscarriage of justice he had seen.

Updated: 12:26 Friday, December 13, 2002