Nicholas Hoogstraten may have been absent for the best part of two years but the notorious millionaire proved this week he has lost none of his capacity for surprise.

In an exclusive interview for The Argus, given soon after his release from Belmarsh Prison in London, he revealed he has become a Samaritan.

Mr Hoogstraten, 58, proudly showed me the certificate he had been given in prison, signed by the governor and other worthies.

It refers to his listening skills and entitles him to be on the end of a phone to hear stories from people who want to express their feelings of despair.

Mr Hoogstraten, who in the past appeared to revel in his image as a ruthless operator and was once described by a judge as a "self-appointed emissary of Beelzebub", does not intend to go round to the local Samaritans' office but said: "Many people already know where I am."

He has already put his new skills to the test and allied them to his legal expertise, which he worked on in Belmarsh.

While inside, he helped several prisoners whom he felt, like him, had been wrongly convicted.

One of them, a Jamaican Yardie, was accused of a murder in south London. He was also charged, like Mr Hoogstraten, with manslaughter.

With the aid of Mr Hoogstraten, the remand prisoner walked free from court last month, although he is now back in Belmarsh awaiting deportation. This will also be fought.

Mr Hoogstraten was released this week after serving 12 months of a ten-year-sentence for the manslaughter of Brighton landlord Mohammed Raja.

First he managed to get a retrial and this week the prosecution decided not to go ahead with the case.

Throughout all those months, Mr Hoogstraten never wavered from his belief that the case against him would unravel and he would be freed. He spent a lot of time fulminating in colourful language against lawyers but did not want to be quoted because he is contemplating court action.

Mr Hoogstraten walked from Belmarsh, Britain's most secure jail, a free man and saw the sun for the first time in two years.

Apart from a prison pallor, rapidly disappearing, and a headache caused by the stress and strain of this week, he looked fit and well.

He was wearing his trademark full-length leather coat as we met in familiar surroundings, Courtlands Hotel in The Drive, Hove.

Mr Hoogstraten was welcomed like an old friend by staff at the hotel but ordered only a glass of water which he sipped occasionally during the 90-minute interview.

Mr Hoogstraten spent the first ten minutes unfurling my copy of The Argus yesterday and pointing out errors in our coverage of his release.

He was born in 1945 not 1946 (although he does not mind our saying he is younger than his 58 years). He served in the Merchant and not the Royal Navy.

Then came the surprises. He said he does not own Courtlands or any other hotel in the Brighton area and never has.

There are three separate companies for Courtlands - one has the freehold, another the head lease, while a third manages it.

He still has close connections with Courtlands, likes the place and knows some of the staff by name. But as for owning it - no.

While on the subject, he certainly prefers it to budget hotels in Brighton which have sprung up during the last few years, which he said had no character.

Mr Hoogstraten explained that about 20 years ago, when he had a little confrontation with the taxman (he was presented with Britain's largest-ever bill of £5.3 million) he reorganised his affairs so that it would not happen again.

Even by then, he had moved 90 per cent of his assets out of the Inland Revenue's clutches but had not realised by how much the remaining ten per cent had appreciated.

Then he produced the certificate saying he has been trained by the Samaritans. He is undeniably proud of it and said: "I am a good listener."

Document no. 103880 says: "This is to certify that Nick van Hoogstraten has been trained by The Samaritans of Bexley/Bromley in listening and befriending skills at HM Prison, Belmarsh."

The multi-millionaire was in the high-security wing of the prison by the banks of the Thames in south-east London. One of his delights was to breathe in the fresh air of the river.

He could not see daylight even when out because there is a cover over the open areas to prevent well-heeled prisoners with daring friends outside to whisk them away by helicopter.

"I could have got out," he said as if it was an undeniable fact. "But I wanted to stay and prove my innocence."

Mr Hoogstraten said he was not bored for a minute while in prison. He spent a lot of time studying law and this increased his certainty that he would be vindicated.

Much of what he said about the case in long letters he wrote to me on prison notepaper has come true.

In great detail, and off the record because of the future legal action he is contemplating, he explained how he managed it.

"I am now the second leading expert on manslaughter after Sir Stephen Mitchell (judge at his last hearing)," he explains.

Mr Hoogstraten was animated as he showed how he could not have been guilty of the manslaughter of Mohammed Raja.

He took a calculated gamble during the trial by deciding to explain to the jury the sort of man he was and said: "I told them I was no angel."

When I pointed out he still got convicted, he replied that was because of a misdirection by the judge.

Mr Hoogstraten makes no secret of his dislike for Raja, whom he has called a maggot in the past. He does not withdraw the word now but prefers to describe him as a small-time slum landlord with no redeeming features.

He is irritated at suggestions that Raja was a business rival or associate and said: "He was never a rival."

In Belmarsh, Mr Hoogstraten was in demand, not only for his legal advice but for his knowledge of the stock market.

He regularly gave advice to other prisoners and some officers on shares.

The ever-abstemious Mr Hoogstraten even made a small profit out of prison because he never spent all his canteen money when he was there.

Money, he said, means nothing to him and he had to borrow £200 from the mother of one of his five children when he came out of Belmarsh because he had no cash.

Although £30 million of his fortune has been sequestered and £90 million frozen, he gives the impression there is plenty more.

Much of it is still held in gold, where the price continues to appreciate. He sold most of his properties years ago before a crash in values in the Eighties.

Mr Hoogstraten is contemptuous of reports that Hamilton Palace, the mansion he is building at Framfield, near Uckfield, is worth only about £600,000.

He said that was the estimated value of a couple of barns on the estate and added: "Even the boathouse is worth £1 million."

Mr Hoogstraten also denied reports that the unfinished mansion, with a 620ft frontage, is crumbling and rotting away as it is assailed by wind and rain.

He said: "It is weathering and settling. It has been built to last. It is not a housing association home."

Work will soon resume on the palace, the largest private house built in Britain during the last century, and which will eventually house his mausoleum.

Mr Hoogstraten received much publicity during a battle with ramblers over a disputed footpath running through part of the estate.

They claimed victory after a blocked path was eventually cleared after court battles.

Mr Hoogstraten said: "While I have been away they have been all over the grounds but there is no sign of them now."

There is plenty of security at the palace and Mr Hoogstraten explained in a drawing on the back of an envelope how the path crosses only one small corner of the estate a good half mile from his home.

He revealed a second, smaller but still substantial palace, was being built by him in Zimbabwe. His love for the vast African country is undiminished.

Contrary to reports that his assets have been seized there, Mr Hoogstraten said he had been accumulating them.

He still has plenty of farmland, although not the million acres he once possessed, and has bought a coal mine with one of the biggest reserves in the world. They should last hundreds of years.

Mr Hoogstraten is at pains to dismiss a story that surfaced while he was in jail.

It alleged he spent millions of pounds funding MIG aircraft for the Zimbabwean regime.

He said: "All I did was to arrange the foreign exchange (in South Africa) for a few spare parts they needed which cost about £180,000."

Mr Hoogstraten certainly intends to resume his visits to Zimbabwe, where he is on good terms with president Robert Mugabe.

One of the first messages he received on his impending release was from the president congratulating him.

I asked Mr Hoogstraten where he was going to live. He replied: "I am homeless."

Eventually he added: "There are plenty of places where I could stay."

What about his family? He is on good terms with all his five children. He is also speaking to his three 'wives', although he springs another surprise when he said: "I was never married to any of them."

Mr Hoogstraten added, in what may be an understatement: "I am not an easy man to live with."

He has gained a hard reputation over the years and has been accused in the past of using strong-arm tactics against tenants of properties which he bought cheaply for redevelopment.

He is also known for regarding tenants as "filth".

However, he said his tenants were overjoyed at his release and he received scores of supportive letters from them.

He said, contrary to public rumour, he has never evicted any of them and he said his actions had been confined to "illegal occupants."

At Vere Road in Brighton, where 30 years ago he assisted in chucking furniture out of the window, he famously declared: "This is the best bit of fun I've had in ages."

But Mr Hoogstraten said the people concerned moved in there illegally during another spell of incarceration.

The same applied to a house in Portslade, where he took off the roof. "They were squatters," he said with contempt.

He strongly denies ever being a slum landlord.

Mr Hoogstraten challenges his tenants - and of course they are not really his any more with the restructuring of his companies - to come forward and say if they disagree. He guarantees they will not.

He has been compared with Peter Rachman, the notorious London landlord.

Mr Hoogstraten and I were both in his stamping ground of Notting Hill 40 years ago when Rachman's empire was at its peak and we are among the few people left who knew him.

Mr Hoogstraten said Rachman was not all bad. The dogs he took round with him ostensibly to frighten tenants out, were actually to protect rent collectors from being robbed.

Nor did Rachman forcibly evict tenants, he said. But he had his own methods and if he wanted Irish families out, he would invite West Indians, with their different culture and ways, into the same houses.

By now it was growing late.

Is Mr Hoogstraten a changed man after prison?

"I have been too straightforward in the past," he said. "If you are, you are going to get hammered. I have been learning and Belmarsh is a good place for learning."

Asked if he was seeking revenge, he said: "Not revenge but justice."

How would be liked to be remembered? He said: "The only people that matter are the ones that know me."

He added: "I'm all right as long as you don't upset me," and said as an afterthought this was a joke.

Mr Hoogstraten gives huge sums to charity, mainly in Zimbabwe, and the only charity he names is what used to be called The Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind.

He says his reputation has been fostered by the Press which he affects to despise, although he does read what many of the papers say about him.

As we got up to leave, I asked him how he would spend Christmas. He replied simply: "Here with the family."