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Bulger killers face freedom hurdle

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The killers of two-year-old James Bulger are due before parole board hearings this week which may grant them their freedom.

Both Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, aged 10 at the time of the murder but now 18, have served the minimum eight years of their sentence.

Venables' board interview was taking place on Monday and Thompson's is expected on Wednesday.

Both hearings were being held at secret locations. Demonstrators were outside the Parole Board's London headquarters from early Monday morning.

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The parole panel can free either boy within days if it decides he is no longer a danger to the public, though there is no indication how early a decision would be taken.

Thompson and Venables lured toddler James from a shopping centre in Bootle, near Liverpool, in February 1993.

They dragged him to a railway line two miles (3kms) away, beat and stoned him to death, then pulled his body onto the tracks.

The pair were put on trial as adults for murder, found guilty and ordered to serve eight years at a detention centre.

A Home Secretary in a Conservative government later increased the sentence to 15 years but in October 2000 a judge reinstated the eight-year tariff. This made the boys eligible for parole this year.

The boys have been granted an open-ended High Court injunction ordering that when they are freed their new identities must not be disclosed by the news media.

Judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss said the teenagers were "uniquely notorious" and would be in danger if anyone found out where they lived.

She said they were at "serious risk of attacks from members of the public as well as from relatives and friends of the murdered child."

The father of James, Ralph Bulger, said last year that he would take revenge on the pair if he found them.

In February the High Court turned down his bid to block the killers' release. He had argued that the sentence was so low it undermined confidence in the UK criminal justice system.

The handful of protesters outside Parole Board offices in London were from the pressure group "Mothers Against Murder and Aggression."

A founder member, Joe Rouse, said: "Public opinion far outweighs any plans to free the boys."

Another demonstrator, Roger Costello, said: "By letting the boys out now, it would be sending the wrong message out to other would-be murderers. They have committed a serious crime and end up being molly-coddled."

Members of the parole panel will see psychiatric and other reports from the trial and up-to-date reports from doctors and criminologists.

They will also look at the teenagers' school reports and their disciplinary records.

The panel members must decide if it is any longer necessary for the protection of the public that they continue to be held.

If it decides that either of the teenagers should stay in custody they would be transferred to an adult jail.

• Parole Board

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