Charles Sobhraj, a serial killer known as “The Serpent”, who police say is responsible for a string of murders in the 1970s and 1980s, is to be released from prison in Nepal, the Himalayan country’s Supreme Court has ruled.
The 78-year-old French national has served 19 years in prison for the murders of an American and a Canadian backpacker. Life sentences in Nepal are 20 years.
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He has admitted killing at least 20 young Western backpackers across Asia, usually by drugging their food or drink, but his 2004 conviction in Nepal was the first time he was found guilty in court.
Thailand first issued a warrant for his arrest in the mid-1970s on charges of drugging and killing six women on a beach at Pattaya.
Sobhraj is known as “The Bikini Killer” and “The Serpent” because of his ability to disguise himself and assume other identities to evade justice. He managed to escape from a prison in India in the mid-1980s. He was later caught and jailed in New Delhi’s maximum-security Tihar prison until 1997. He resurfaced in September 2003 in Kathmandu.
“Keeping him in the prison continuously is not in line with the prisoner’s human rights,” read a copy of Wednesday’s verdict seen by the AFP news agency.
“If there is not any other pending cases against him to keep him in the prison, this court orders his release by today and … the return to his country within 15 days,” it said.
Sobhraj needed open-heart surgery and his release was in keeping with a law allowing compassionate discharge of bedridden prisoners who had already served three-quarters of their sentence, the verdict added.
Hippie Trail murders
After a troubled childhood and several prison terms in France for petty crimes, Sobhraj began travelling the world in the early 1970s, befriending and robbing young backpackers as he made his way along the Hippie Trail from Europe to Southeast Asia.
“He was cultured, courteous,” said Nadine Gires, who befriended Sobhraj when he moved into her Bangkok apartment building in 1975.
But she soon began to fear her fast-talking neighbour, who masqueraded as a gemstone trader to lure cash-strapped travellers before allegedly drugging, robbing and killing them.
“Many people were getting sick in his home,” she told AFP last year. “He was not only a swindler, a seducer, a robber of tourists, but an evil murderer.”
Sobhraj underwent a five-hour heart operation in 2017, and Wednesday’s verdict said he remained in regular treatment for heart disease.
Sobhraj will likely be freed from Kathmandu’s Central Jail on Thursday, an official at the prison told AFP.
He will first have to appear in a lower court for administrative formalities before he can walk free, the official said.
He is accused of strangling, beating or burning backpackers and often using the passports of his male victims to travel to his next destination.
Sobhraj’s sobriquet, “The Serpent”, became the title of a hit series made by the BBC and Netflix, which was based on his life.
In prison in 2008, Sobhraj married Nihita Biswas, who is 44 years his junior and the daughter of his Nepalese lawyer.