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Court in Sofia bans jail visit to 19-year-old

THE Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, was banned this week from visiting a Liverpool teenager in a Bulgarian prison.

Bishop Jones agreed to make the visit at the request of the family and supporters of Michael Shields, who was imprisoned for 15 years last July after being convicted of attacking a Bulgarian barman.

Mr Shields, aged 19, of Wavertree in Merseyside, has always denied the attack. His appeal will be heard later this month.

The Bishop, with Foreign Office approval, was to spend 30 minutes with Mr Shields in his cell, chatting and praying; but the Sofia Supreme Court said on Monday that it would not allow the visit.

After hearing of this on Monday, the Bishop said: "It is difficult to understand why a pastoral visit should be turned down. My hope is that the judge will consider compassionate grounds for such a visit."

The leader of the Labour group on Liverpool City Council, Joe Anderson, was to lead the trip. The Liverpool Echo on Monday reported that Cllr Anderson felt very let down by the decision, and had made strong representations to the Foreign Office.

Mr Shields's father, also Michael, said that the family were "very disappointed", as his son had been looking forward to meeting the Bishop and saying a prayer with him.

Bishop Jones said: "My primary concern is to visit Michael pastorally. Although I have never met him, I know of Michael from the New Deal programme which I chaired in Liverpool. I have heard about him from many people, and am assured that the things for which Michael has been convicted are out of character. There are concerns in Liverpool that he has been wrongly identified. The hope is that the appeal will make this clear."

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