Convicted murderer Charles "The Serpent" Sobhraj confident he will walk free

6th February 2007, Comments 0 comments

KATHMANDU, Feb 6, 2007 (AFP) - Charles Sobhraj, an avid student of law during long stints in jail, still protests his innocence and believes he will walk free when a Nepali court hears his appeal against a life sentence for murder.

KATHMANDU, Feb 6, 2007 (AFP) - Charles Sobhraj, an avid student of law during long stints in jail, still protests his innocence and believes he will walk free when a Nepali court hears his appeal against a life sentence for murder.

Known as the "Bikini Killer," Frenchman Sobhraj was tried by a Nepali court in 2004 and convicted for the 1975 murder of an American woman, for which he was jailed for 20 years.

He is now appealing his sentence before the Supreme Court, arguing that he was not in Kathmandu at the time Connie Joe Bronzich was repeatedly stabbed and her body burnt almost beyond recognition.

"I really didn't do it, and I think I will be out," Sobhraj told AFP in a recent interview.

"In my case, there are no documents and no witnesses (to the crime). I think that the court will have to free me," said Sobhraj, whose is also known as "The Serpent" for brazen escapes from prisons in Greece, Afghanistan and India.

The date for the next hearing in the appeal which opened in December is expected to be set soon.

As families tried to shout to other prisoners in the clamour of a crowded visitors' room in Kathmandu's crumbling central jail, Sobhraj's immaculate appearance stood in stark contrast to his decrepit surroundings.

The still handsome Sobhraj -- who is half-Vietnamese, half-Indian -- has been linked to a string of poisonings, killings and robberies of backpackers across Asia in the 1970s -- events that led to the "Bikini Killer" sobriquet.

Thai police wanted to question him about five deaths, and Indian authorities convicted him of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and other charges, eventually freeing him in 1997 after 21 years of detention. 

In 2003, Sobhraj, described by police as a persuasive con man, was arrested in a Kathmandu casino where he said he was doing research for a television documentary.

He was convicted the following year of Bronzich's killing and the verdict was upheld by a higher court. His lawyers argue the evidence against him was fabricated.

His conviction rests largely on the evidence of handwriting experts who said the signature on hotel registration slips from 1975 matched his.

But Sobhraj, 62 years old and a self-taught martial artist, said the photocopied slips were forged. His lawyers have asked to see the originals but so far they have not been produced.
   -- "You can run but you can't hide" --

Raja Ram Dhakal, one of Sobhraj's five lawyers, said: "Photographs and photocopies are not reliable evidence because they can be fabricated. There is no original evidence, no direct evidence and the chain of circumstantial evidence is not established."

Sobhraj said during his trial and maintains today that he had never visited Nepal before his arrest.

But a retired police officer who identified Sobhraj during the Supreme Court appeal hearing believes the right man is behind bars.

"Finally the killer has been brought to justice. You can commit a crime and you can run, but you cant hide," 79-year-old Chandra Bir Rai told AFP.

In dramatic court testimony late last year, Rai said he had seen Sobhraj in Nepal in 1975, contradicting the convict's claim never to have been in the country before.

"His claim that he did not visit Nepal before 2003 is false," Rai told the court.

Speaking to AFP, he reiterated his testimony. "I am sure that this is the same man we saw in 1975," he said.

"No murder charges in other countries were ever proved -- this might have encouraged him to think that would be the same here. He took Nepali police too lightly."

The driver of a car hired in 1975 by the man who police believe is Sobhraj also identified him in court.

"Though I cannot remember all the events, I can at least remember Sobhraj's face," Purna Bahadur Maharajan said in court.

Rai was not involved in investigating the murders of foreign nationals until the remains of Bronzich, a Californian, and her Canadian male friend Laurent Carriere were found at two roadside locations in the Kathmandu valley in late December 1975.  

-- Finger of suspicion pointed at Sobhraj --

The bodies of Bronzich and Carriere were found two days apart. Carriere had also been repeatedly stabbed and burnt. Sobhraj faced trial only for Bronzich's murder.

"Murder charges in the second case were also filed, but over past 20 years the police records of the Carriere case were misplaced," said Bishwalal Shrestha, a lawyer who was the police officer in charge of investigating the grisly murders.

Rai said that when he first met Sobhraj, he was unknown to Nepali police."At that time we didn't know anything about (Sobhraj), but he was a suspect and we kept him under surveillance at his hotel," said Rai.

Villagers near where the bodies were found said they knew nothing about the murders.

But friends of the victims pointed the finger of suspicion at a Vietnamese gem dealer whom Broznich had met, accoording to Richard Neville and Julie Clark in their detailed book "The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj," published by Jonathan Cape in 1979.

Neville said Broznich had come to Nepal to kick a heroin addiction and planned to do a gem deal to raise cash to continue her travels.

For his part, Sobhraj was believed to have been travelling with his longtime lover and alleged partner in crime Marie Andree Leclerc who died of cancer in 1986 in Canada after being freed from jail in India because of her illness.

Nepali police at the time suspected that Sobhraj -- or the man they now believe was him -- was involved in the deaths.

But such was the respect for foreigners in the 1970s that they obeyed a "do not disturb" sign on his hotel room door, Rai said.

"We waited a whole day and night for them to open their door, but they didn't. When we went into the room the next day, their belongings were there but they were not," he said.

"They had slipped out of the fire escape at the back of the room."

Shrestha described Sobhraj as a charmer.

"He is a very interesting man to talk to. He behaves very well and has a lot of good qualities, but he was also brilliant at what he did, and was a professional killer," he said.

As Sobhraj has escaped from various prisons around the world, his jailers regard him as a high risk and keep a close eye on him.  

"He already tried to escape (from Kathmandu's central jail) a few years back. He had a laptop and cellphone smuggled into the prison," said Shrestha.
-- "A would-be superman, now a geriatric psychopath" --

To avoid deportation to Thailand where he was wanted for murder, in 1986 Sobhraj walked out of India's high-security Tihar jail after drugging his guards with sweets.

But Shrestha doesn't see him breaking out of Kathmandu's jail anytime soon.

"Police all over the world now know his modus operandi, and know not to take food and drink from him. Everyone knows his tricks now," said Shrestha.

In 1977, Neville, an Australian, spent two months visiting Sobhraj in his New Delhi jail while researching his book.

He says he is not surprised that Sobhraj returned to Kathmandu in 2003, a place where he had been a murder suspect for 25 years.

"Maybe he just wanted to gamble again at the Oberoi (hotel) for old times' sake ... or make headlines again," said Neville.

"He thrives on risk and danger, he hates conventional bourgeois life, he reaches his full potential in a prison."  

For Neville, Sobhraj's long criminal history represents a terrible waste of his talents, which include mastery of several languages and a self-taught expertise in criminal law. 

"Once a would-be superman, now a geriatric psychopath decaying in a dungeon, clinging to fantasies," Neville wrote in an email to AFP.

"The story of Charles Sobhraj is a tragedy, not only for the numerous victims, his own family, but also for himself," he said.

"Huge potential expended in a pool of blood."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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