Charles Sobhraj, once counted among Asia’s biggest law breakers, is now trying his best to get on the right side of the law to walk out of Kathmandu’s largest prison.
The alleged serial killer, now 72 and probably tired of a life behind bars, has petitioned a court in Kathmandu that he should be released as per new guidelines of the Nepal’s Jail Manual that guarantees an automatic release of convicts over 72 years of age.
He has already spent a little over 14 years in solitary confinement in Nepal’s Central Prison.
“Mummy, they cannot keep me here forever, I am being denied justice,” Sobhraj told his mother-in-law and lawyer Shakuntala Thapa, during his twice-weekly telephonic calls from the prison on Wednesday, 12 April 2017.
Thapa, who sought answers from Sobhraj for Firstpost during the jail-monitored call, said her son-in-law was hopeful that the Nepalese government will look into his petition filed in April 2017, for release under the new guidelines of the Jail Manual.
“I did not commit any murders, I am being convicted on the basis of some strange suspicion. I need help,” said Sobhraj, who had once proudly claimed he could even smuggle out an elephant from Nepal. Immediately after that, in 2003, he was arrested from a casino in Kathmandu.
“I will die with this double life sentence,” Sobhraj said during his telephonic conversation, in an apparent reference to the September 2014, verdict at a court in Bhaktapur where he was convicted of murdering Canadian backpacker Laurent Carriere. Shobraj, a French citizen of Vietnamese and Indian parentage, is already serving a life sentence in Nepal for the murder of US tourist Connie Joe Bronzich on Kathmandu's outskirts in 1975. The bodies of Bronzich and her friend Carriere, both repeatedly stabbed and burnt beyond recognition, were found a few days apart in two different areas of Kathmandu.
“I continue to claim through my petitions that I am innocent, I am innocent, I am innocent. I was not in Nepal when these bodies were found by the police but no one seems to believe me,” said Sobhraj.
If released, Sobhraj has told jail officials that he would visit the centres of Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata and work there as a volunteer.
Asked if all the charges in all the countries he visited were untrue, Sobhraj fell silent. And then he told his mother-in-law: “In India, the chargesheet did not say I was the murderer. I seek justice, nothing but justice from the court in Nepal.
“I am dying here, I have serious health issues that need to be addressed but my petitions are routinely rejected,” said Sobhraj.
“It does not happen around the world, why doesn't the government pardon me and let me lead a normal life?” Sobhraj asked Thapa.
Doctors in Kathmandu have tested Sobhraj and recommended an open heart surgery. The alleged serial killer is also diabetic and suffers from nerve disorders.
But barring his 27 year-old wife, Nihita, and her mother, there are none in the Himalayan nation backing his claims.
Nihita, who married the convict inside jail by exchanging garlands, says she will continue to wait for her husband. “What else I can do? I can only wait, I rarely get to see him. And there’s nothing I can or wish to say of him because there’s a mindset about him across India and Nepal... I don't know if I will be able to get him free; he is not well, and is struggling,” says Nihita.
She says her husband is in jail because of his perceived ability to evade justice, which in turn, earned him worldwide notoriety. “He did not kill anyone in Nepal and the charges in Thailand and India were never proved, so what are we talking of here?”
Nihita and her mother refused to comment on cases where Sobhraj escaped from jails in Greece, Afghanistan and India, including the incident at New Delhi’s maximum security Tihar prison where he drugged guards with sedative-laced sweets and made away.
Cops in Kathmandu say the murders were conclusively proved to be committed by Sobhraj and his accomplice from Thailand, Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a Canadian medical secretary. “By the time he entered Nepal from Thailand, he had already committed a few murders in Bangkok and its outskirts,” says Biswalal Srestha, a cop who worked closely on the dual murders in Kathmandu.
“Sobhraj is one of the biggest con men in the world, the law caught up with him eventually. He was a master operator. He has no chance to leave the prison in Nepal,” says Srestha. He said he is not authorised to comment on the recent changes in the Jail Manual and if Sobhraj can use it to his benefit.
There are others who feel the case has all but dropped out of peoples’ minds in both India and Nepal. “He is just a name, a faded memory. Sobhraj has fallen off the map,” says Rakesh Thapa, a hotel manager in Kathmandu.
Probably it is because the case dates back to a little over half a century.
Very few documents pertaining to the 58-year-old case are with the Nepal Police, but those who probed the case claim Sobhraj came to Nepal after committing as many as five murders with an Indian, Ajay Chowdhury. The first victim, Teresa Knowlton from Seattle, was found dead in a pool, wearing a bikini. The others were Vitaji Hakim, a Jew, whose body was found burnt and discarded in Pattaya and Hakim’s girlfriend, Charmayne Carrou, who had come looking for him. Sobhraj and Chowdhury also murdered a Dutch couple whose bodies were found burnt and discarded.
“Nepal was swept up in the flower power movement; hippies from all over the world flocked to Kathmandu, (so) it was very easy for Sobhraj and his friend to escape after the murders,” says Srestha.
“He was all over Asia, speaking seven languages, passing himself off as an Israeli scholar, a Lebanese textile merchant, and a thousand other things. He was a dangerous drug-and-rob man [sic].”
But when he returned to Nepal in 2003, the murder of the Dutch couple in 1975 came back to haunt him. Crucial evidence was gathered by a Dutch diplomat, Knippenberg, aided with evidence that lay with Interpol. Sobhraj was given a life sentence in 2005.
Locals in Kathmandu say there was no grief when Sobhraj was convicted for life. “He was never a saint. He had snuffed out many grass-smoking Western dropouts on the Hippie Trail. Sobhraj routinely fleeced these spiritually thirsty wanderers and murdered them,” says Gokarna Awasthi, a senior journalist.
But Sobhraj’s mother-in-law calls the charges a “lot of bull” because she says nothing was conclusively proved. “He was in Nepal to complete a research project on water. Very conveniently, the police put him in prison,” Thapa said of Sobhraj, who has been linked to a string of backpacker deaths across South and South East Asia in the '70s.
“May I remind you that my son in law has never been convicted for murder, even in India, where he served a 21-year sentence in India for culpable homicide before his arrest in Nepal? It was fashionable for the cops to arrest him,” says Thapa.
“He is dying and this second jail sentence will all but kill him. If the new law says prisoners over 72 years must be released from jail, then the Nepalese government must release my son in law,” says Thapa.
Thapa says the cops did not bring out any evidence, any witnesses during the trial in Nepal. “They just prosecuted him, it’s absolutely wrong. This is a gross human rights violation.”
Sources in Kathmandu say Sobhraj is lodged in Golghar (almost like the egg-shaped Andaa cell of Mumbai’s famous Arthur Road Jail) in Kathmandu’s Central Prison from the Dillibazar Jail where he was first lodged.
Interestingly, Golghar is a jail within the jail with seven cells — each cell for one inmate who is forced to sleep on the concrete floor.
Multan Theba, a political prisoner, who lived with Sobhraj in Golghar for four months, recently told a Nepalese newspaper how Sobhraj lived inside the prison. “He directly came to us and said his mother-in-law was legal advisor to Baburam Bhattarai and promised me freedom if the Maoists come to power. He always praised the Maoists.”
“Sobhraj used to gym at midnight, he had filled sand in empty boxes of ghee wrapped up with cloth, for lifting weights; he also used water-filled drums for his weight training. He paid inmate leaders and earned their respect. Once, he had a lot of money. He would never use the common toilets, he would often claim his food and clothes come from France, he smoke foreign cigarettes.”
“He was a master chess player and would beat anyone hands down in just 10, maximum 15 moves.”
Jail authorities say two books which Sobhraj always keeps with him are Maxim Gorky’s Mother and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. They say there have been times when they have raided his cell, and recovered as many as three handsets and loads of pornographic magazines. “He is super smart at 72. He often says he will not marry again, Nihita is his last wife,” says a jail official, speaking on conditions of anonymity.
Sobhraj remains his usual self, flashy to the core.
Of late, has been telling jail attendants that he has four scripts ready for filmmakers in Mumbai, most revolving around the life of a gangster and that he has almost finished what he claims is “the original and most definitive autobiography” and is waiting for an international agent to hawk the same for an amount not less than Rs 4 crore.
“He is confident of getting an agent soon, he is writing feverishly,” says Thapa.
In Mumbai, actor Randeep Hooda, who portrayed Sobhraj in the movie, Main Aur Charles, once campaigned aggressively for his release in 2015. Hooda said he was convinced Sobhraj was “innocent” and wanted to start a campaign to free the alleged serial killer.
There were no takers.
In his solitary confinement, the “Bikini Killer”, once known as a handsome, charismatic occasional gem thief, leads a desolate life. He needs a literary agent, a film financier, and above all, his freedom.
Outside the jail, Thapa and Nihita wait for the next hearing, praying regularly at the altar of Nepal’s biggest temple of Lord Shiva at Pashupatinath. She believes miracles do happen, especially if you live in the land of the gods.
Updated Date: Apr 22, 2017 12:56 PM