IAN STILLMAN was alone in his freezing cell in India's Himalayan foothills.

The only Englishman in the prison, his disability ensured complete isolation.

He had no idea of the number of supporters who were pressing hard on his behalf thousands of miles away in North Yorkshire.

Exactly a year ago, his elderly parents urged Evening Press readers not to forget their only son, serving the second of ten years in prison for smuggling cannabis - a crime he always pleaded ignorance of.

The response could not have been anticipated.

"By far and away, the strongest support we got came from York," said Ian's father Roy, who lives in Tadcaster Road.

"The effect of the Evening Press campaign was quite extraordinary. It went as far up as Tony Blair and definitely contributed to the Government intervening. That's what unlocked the door."

The Evening Press published Roy and his wife Monica's plea for their son's release. It printed the fact that he had not understood his trial and been denied a sign language translator, that he had helped thousands of deaf Indians with 30 years of charity work and that deteriorating health was threatening the life of the 52-year-old, who is diabetic and had a leg amputated after a road accident.

The response was immediate. Petitions packed with names started to arrive at the newspaper's Walmgate office. In only a few months, 5,400 names had been collected.

City of York Council publicly demanded his release, as did 237 MPs.

"It was massive," said Roy. "Suddenly everybody in the city knew Ian's name. Monica and I would walk into town and we'd notice the number of people walking past who gave us knowing looks and asked how everything was going. It was quite astonishing.

"Yesterday we had a man come to the house to read the water meter who asked us if we were Ian Stillman's parents. We asked him how he knew about Ian and he said there can't be anybody round here who doesn't know about him."

In December, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw intervened, and the Indian government released Ian on health grounds.

The emotion as he was met by his family and friends at Heathrow Airport was plain to see. "This would not have happened without the support of so many unknown individuals," he said.

"I want to thank the city of York."

Ian is currently living in Romsey, Hants, recovering from his ordeal, but hopes to return to India.

Updated: 11:09 Saturday, March 29, 2003