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Requiem for Ronald Biggs, Great Train Robber, punk associate

There we were, sitting in a crowded room of a two-storey stone building dating back to when Bridgetown, Barbados, was a buccaneer and slaving settlement. Convicted Great Train Robber, escapee, Australian and Brazilian resident and Sex Pistols associate Ronald Biggs was sitting, handcuffed but smiling and happily relaxed in the dock, his theatrical local barrister resplendent in a tunic with red leg stripes, arguing his case.

That was April 1981. The air was soft, the water clear and, they say, the spliff was excellent.

Biggs had been recently kidnapped from Brazil by English bounty hunter mercenaries. Their boat had mechanical problems and they were rescued off Barbados, bringing into question the legal status of their involuntary shipmate.

I was a 25-year-old reporter, sent to cover the trial by a significant Australian newspaper, by way of inducement to leave El Salvador’s horrible and increasingly personalised civil war. Biggs was eminently sociable and ensured that he made eye contact with the media scrum on the benches. In the first stage of post-traumatic stress disorder, I nodded back.

Much of Bridgetown had been built by the British in the 17th century, after expelling the Spanish and Portuguese who had been there some 200 years previously. Apart from an airport, a requisite four star hotel and reggae, there was a sense that little had changed.

Biggs was by far the biggest thing that had happened to Barbados in a very long time. There were British tourists, jetting in and out. But it was otherwise "dreadlock holiday".

The British media was there, Biggs’ criminal notoriety having been given a further boost by his musically questionable appearance with remnant Sex Pistols on their video The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. For a person who could not legally work in Brazil, he had traded socially for years on his reputation as a famous criminal, receiving small gifts from visitors to attend his Rio barbecues.

Ronald Biggs was one of the Great Train Robbers, who hoisted an estimated 2.6 million pounds (a significant fortune now) from the Glasgow-to-London mail train in 1963. Though no one was killed, the train driver, Jack Mills, was beaten so severely his injuries ended his working life.

Of the 13 convicted participants in the crime, Biggs was a minor player. However, the trial itself was a media sensation, and Biggs gained notoriety by getting over the walls of Wandsworth Prison in 1965 and escaping with his wife, Charmian, and two sons to Brussels, Paris and then Australia.

Biggs arrived in Sydney in 1966 and soon moved to Glenelg, in Adelaide, where he was joined by his wife and sons. The following year, and with a new child, they moved to Melbourne.

In 1969, it had become increasingly obvious that the infamous Ronald Biggs was in Melbourne. He was all across the local news. So he fled by ship to Panama, and then to Brazil where, by fathering a Brazilian child, he fought off extradition appeals by the UK government.

While living in Rio, Biggs became a local celebrity. One could buy T-shirts and coffee cups with his image. The remnant Sex Pistols teamed up for a quick punk recording of No One Is Innocent and Belsen Was A Gas, which made #7 on the UK charts.

In 1981, Biggs was kidnapped by ex-UK soldiers. But Barbados, small, only independent since 1966 and without many legal structures, had no extradition treaty with the UK. Biggs was returned to Brazil.

Biggs dragged out the rest of his minor celebrity with other punk bands and generous tourists, but chose to return to the UK in 2001. He was immediately returned to prison, but sought release on the basis of poor health. He was released in 2009, having served a third of his original sentence.

Biggs' health continued to be poor, and he suffered a series of strokes. Free from prison, he said he just wanted to see Christmas of 2009.

Ronald Biggs, 84, has fallen just short of seeing Christmas 2013.

Kidnap mystery: wrong group blamed for Rodwell's capture?

The release of Australian hostage Warren Rodwell after being held hostage for the past 15 months has provided a lucky ending to hostage-taking in the southern Philippines. In a region that has had perhaps the world's most consistently high kidnapping rate for the past couple of decades, it is an especially rare outcome for a kidnapping allegedly by the Abu Sayyaf Group.

The ASG is notorious for executing its hostages if ransoms are not paid quickly. That Rodwell has been released with a payment believed to be less than 5% of the original demand of $2 million suggests that while he was indeed kidnapped, it was not by the ASG as claimed.

On Saturday morning, Rodwell was put in a boat near the town of Pagadian City and told to "paddle for your life" following the payment of what is believed to have been a little more than A$90,000. While the ASG claims an Islamist rationale and has engaged in bombings and other terrorist attacks in the Philippines, its principle method of operation has been kidnappings for ransom.

The ASG has developed a fearsome reputation for executing hostages, often by beheading, if ransoms are not paid quickly in full. This has led some counter-terrorism experts to suggest that either the ASG has "gone soft" or, more likely, the group that kidnapped Rodwell was not ASG.

"A lot of us agree that something about this whole affair does not sit right," one CT expert said shortly after Rodwell's "proof of life" video last December. He said at that time that if Rodwell were released, "he would be one of the longest foreigners ever held captive by the ASG, for the least amount of money in their sordid history".

It was noted at that time Rodwell looked relatively well, clean-shaven and did not have a gun at his head, which had been used in videos of other ASG hostages.

The Zamboanga peninsula on the island of Mindanao has for a couple of decades had a reputation as consistently the worst place for kidnapping in the world. As well as three armed separatist organisations operating in the region -- ASG, the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front -- there are also elements of the communist New Peoples' Army and numerous freelance kidnapping gangs, all of which have competed with each other to kidnap people most likely able to pay ransom.

The ASG does not generally operate on mainland Mindanao but in the Sulu Archipelago. That Rodwell was released in an area well outside of the ASG's operational zone indicates it is likely he was abducted by a smaller kidnap gang which claimed that it was ASG in order to stimulate action on the part of parties that might consider paying a ransom for his release.

But even if Rodwell was not kidnapped by the ASG, he was lucky to have had a deal struck on his behalf to be freed. While the ASG's name may have been taken in vain, the region remains intensely dangerous, with foreigners in particular being victims of choice for kidnappers, with outcomes that are often less successful than Rodwell's.

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