Charles Shobhraj came into the dingy visiting area at the Central Jail in Bagh Darbar where he is serving a life sentence. He had agreed to speak to Nepali Times, but only about the Kathmandu District Court's verdict that he had indeed killed an American tourist in the Valley 30 years ago. He wore a woollen cap, not his trademark baseball cap, and had a pen hanging around his neck.
"Sobhraj does not speak much to other inmates and spends most of the time reading and writing on a computer in his cell. He behaves normally," said caretaker Santosh Karki, "and he has not been acting over-smart either." A computer and a tv set in his cell keep him engaged, and he likes to speak about international politics with jail authorities. They say Sobhraj's visitors include his lawyers and officials from the French Embassy. The alleged criminal, who has become something of a celebrity, has been requesting for a transfer to Nakkhu Jail because he believes he would be more comfortable there.
Jail warden Bhoj Raj Sibakoti recalls that Sobhraj seemed quite confident he would win his case and be freed. "But after the court gave the guilty verdict, his confidence seems to have been broken," Sibakoti adds. There was anger in Charles Shobhraj's voice when he spoke to Nepali Times, and most of it was directed against the Nepali court system. Excerpts of the exclusive interview:
How are you feeling these days?
How would you feel if you were sentenced without trial? There was no witness to prove me guilty. Page 12 of the court's judgement says that it was not necessary to call the witnesses because the case is 29 years old. This is an illegal decision. I can't believe such a decision can take place in today's world.
So, what do you do now?
On 27 September, my French lawyers filed a complaint at the United Nations Human Rights Commission secretariat in Geneva about my illegal detention. Nepal has made international commitments on human rights and civic rights. It has also signed the Vienna Convention. How can a country make such a judicial decision when it has so many international commitments?
Do you think the appeal will be granted?
I am confident, and that is what makes me feel better.
And what about your appeal at the Appellate Court?
That is a different chapter (dismissively). The judiciary does not work here.
What are you doing these days?
I am writing. I have a computer in my cell.
What are you writing?
I won't tell you. Now, listen, all I have to say is about the judiciary here (visibly angry). I am shocked by the state of judiciary here. Can you see such a thing happening in India?
Are you writing an article ... or an autobiography?
Sorry, no go.
How is your health?
I am fine but the environment in the jail is not. They keep nine people in one cell as if they were fish in a can.
You have always been unruffled, but you look kind of agitated.
With the kind of judicial system here, you can be 1,000 percent sure to lose your cool. I know I have a strong case and I can win (very angry).
Do you still maintain that this was your first visit to Nepal, and that you were never here 30 years ago?
This was the first time I came here. I never came here before.
What was the purpose of your visit?
I came here to prepare a documentary on Nepali handicraft for a French company.
I will not name it.
(Navin Singh Khadka)
"I couldn't forget Sobhraj"
A Dutch diplomat's determination kept a convicted serial killer on the run and behind bars
JOHN MCBETH in JAKARTA
Twenty-eight years ago, Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg sat in his rented house off Bangkok's busy Sukhumvit Road pulling documents and photographs from a bulky green manila folder.
For several hours, stretching into that soft, long-ago evening, he described to this writer in astonishing detail the chilling story of a smooth-talking Vietnamese-Indian serial killer, a French national who had lured gullible young foreign tourists to their deaths in countries across Asia.
Frustrated by the Thai police's lack of interest of, Knippenberg, then 32, had done almost all of the investigation himself, helped initially by what he called his 'action team' -three colleagues from the Belgian and American embassies and his so-called agent-in-place, housewife Nadine Gires, the killer's 22-year-old neighbour. It was only after Knippenberg had stitched the case together, carefully preserving his role from public scrutiny, that the Thais were prodded into action.
By then, 12 people had fallen victim to a killer who may have been the perfect real-life incarnation of one of fiction's most dangerous characters-a cultured, cunning, satanically handsome villain with a compulsion to do evil. Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj, now 60, gem dealer by profession, a fastidious, pathological Francophile fluent in five languages, is now in a jail in Kathmandu.
Sobhraj was arrested in India in July 1976 and jailed for 12 years for the manslaughter of a French student and an Israeli tourist, and for drugging 22 members of a French tour party who had dropped like flies in the lobby of a New Delhi hotel. But it is only now, seven years after Sobhraj eventually won his freedom, that Knippenberg believes justice has finally been served.
On 19 September last year, the day the Dutchman retired from the diplomatic service, Nepali police arrested Sobhraj in the casino at Kathmandu's Yak and Yeti Hotel, two days after a local journalist had recognised him in the street. And in August this year, the Kathmandu District Court jailed him for life for stabbing 29-year-old American backpacker Connie Bronzich to death outside Kathmandu on 22 December 1975. Her Canadian boyfriend, Laurent Carriere, 26, had been murdered the day before, but that case was dropped because Nepali police couldn't find the file.
The key evidence in rebuilding the Bronzich case came from Knippenberg's four boxes of material, including yellowed photographs, extensive witness statements and photocopies of embarkation cards, flight manifests and passports. Knippenberg kept these with him in a diplomatic career that subsequently took him from Thailand to the United States, Indonesia, Austria, Luxembourg, Greece and New Zealand.
"I couldn't forget him, it was like having malaria," the 60-year-old Harvard graduate recalls from his retirement home in Wellington. "Every couple of years or so something would happen that would draw me back into the case again."
Because of the case, Knippenberg, a doctor's son from a small Dutch town near the German border, never did finish his PhD dissertation on Thai counterinsurgency operations. But he was to prove himself outstandingly able in something he had never prepared for: police work. As one senior Thai police general was to tell him: "I think you're a natural."
Sobhraj, the object of four books and three documentaries, managed to elude the full weight of the law for so long because Thai police, in particular, could not conceive of a foreign serial killer preying on other foreigners. The Saigon-born Sobhraj took breathtaking risks, but he was also relying on the ineptitude of police in drawing links between seven brutal murders that took place in Thailand between August-December 1975.
It was Knippenberg who made the connections. Once asked about the tenacious Dutch hunter he has never met, Sobhraj responded: "I don't know what he has against me." But the two have been bound together from the day the charred bodies of Dutch-born Indonesian Henk Bintanja, 29, and his girlfriend, Comelia Hemker, 25, were found on a roadside north of Bangkok.
That was on 6 December 1975. Knippenberg, at that time a third secretary at the Netherlands embassy, was given the task of finding out what had happened to the two backpackers. It was to set him on a pan-Asian trail of murder, robbery, smuggling and deceit that consumed much of his spare time, even after he was told by his superiors to stop his detective work.
In the late 1970s, Sobhraj gave interviews in jail to author Richard Neville and, in 1984, to Bangkok-based journalist Alan Dawson. Sobhraj talked of, but didn't actually admit to, the 12 murders he is alleged to have committed with two accomplices. Looking back, Dawson says, "He gave a reason for doing it that white people had enslaved Asians with drugs and he was getting his own back without actually saying he did it." Of Sobhraj's alleged accomplices, his French-Canadian girlfriend, Marie-Andree Leclerc, then 31, has since died of cancer. Indian Ajay Chowdhury, 22 at the time of the murders, has never been caught.
By the time Knippenberg entered the picture, Sobhraj had already claimed his first five victims, most of whom had spent time at his Bangkok apartment. Astonishingly, on 8 December, 1975, the day the bodies of the Dutch couple were identified, Sobhraj and Leclerc used the passports of their victims to fly to Kathmandu. And when they retumed to Thailand on 23 December, they were travelling on the passports of Carriere and Bronzich.
Urged on by Knippenberg, Thai police briefly detained the three suspects in March 1976, then inexplicably released them hours later. The following month, with Sobhraj and Leclerc long gone, Knippenberg was given police permission to carry out his own search of the Bangkok apartment. There, he found the personal effects of many of Sobhraj's victims and eight kgs of medicines, including injectables and six bottles of an anti-diarrhoea medicine laced with rat poison.
By then the two were in Europe, but it wasn't long before they were back in India. Nabbed after the tour-party incident, Sobhraj spent the next 10 years in New Delhi's Tihar jail. In March 1986, two years before his scheduled release, he escaped. He was later recaptured in Goa and given another 10-year sentence, avoiding extradition to Thailand where he would have faced almost certain execution. When he finally walked free in February 1997, memories had faded and so had the Thai arrest warrant, which had expired a year before.
Knippenberg was deputy chief of mission in Athens at the time. "I thought, my God, let's not complain," he says. "It was terrible, of course, because of the sense of injustice I felt, but at the same time I said to myself that after all the disappointments we had got more than we expected. Given the rate he killed, we had probably saved the lives of 50 young people or more by keeping him in jail."
Sobhraj then lived for more than six years in the suburbs of Paris, revelling for a while in his notoriety. What made him return to Nepal is difficult to fathom. Knippenberg thinks Sobhraj knowingly took the risk to attract attention, letting himself believe, like many serial killers, that his superior intelligence would once again get him off the hook. Except this time, he forgot about a man who had never given up the hunt.