French serial killer Charles Sobhraj, whose string of murders across Asia in the 1970s was portrayed in the Netflix series, The Serpent, was still awaiting his release from prison on Thursday after a Nepali court ordered him freed on health grounds.
The Supreme Court in Kathmandu ruled on Wednesday that Sobhraj, 78, who has been in jail in the Himalayan republic since 2003 for two killings decades earlier, should be immediately released and deported within 15 days.
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He underwent open heart surgery in 2017 and his release was in keeping with the law allowing the compassionate discharge of bedridden prisoners who have served three-quarters of their sentence, its verdict said.
Sobhraj is expected to return to France but will not leave prison until Friday, his lawyer said, despite earlier signs that his release was imminent.
“He is staying in the Central Jail again today. He will be sent to the immigration department tomorrow,” his lawyer, Gopal Shiwakoti Chintan, told reporters on Thursday.
Ishwari Prasad Pandey, a jailor at the Central Jail, told the Reuters news agency he would be released on Friday morning.
Sobhraj had been expected to be freed from prison on Thursday but it took time to complete the pre-release processes, including a health check-up, said Pandey.
A French foreign affairs ministry spokesman told AFP that its embassy in Nepal was monitoring the situation.
“If a request for expulsion is notified to them, France would be required to grant it since Mr Sobhraj is a French national.”
Sobhraj began travelling the world in the early 1970s and wound up in the Thai capital Bangkok.
Posing as a gem trader, he would befriend his victims, many of them Western backpackers on the 1970s hippie trail, before drugging, robbing, and murdering them.
“He despised backpackers; he saw them as poor, young drug addicts,” Australian journalist Julie Clarke, who interviewed Sobhraj, told AFP last year.
Suave and sophisticated, he was implicated in his first murder, that of a young American woman whose body was found on a beach wearing a bikini, in 1975.
Nicknamed the “bikini killer”, he was eventually linked to more than 20 murders.
Sobhraj’s other sobriquet, “The Serpent”, came from his ability to assume other identities to evade justice.
It became the title of last year’s hit series by the BBC and Netflix that was based on his life.
‘He looked harmless’
He was arrested in India in 1976 and ultimately spent 21 years in jail there, with a brief break in 1986 when he escaped and was caught again in the Indian coastal state of Goa.
Sobhraj escaped from India’s Tihar jail in 1986 after drugging prison guards with cookies and cakes laced with sleeping pills. Days later, he was caught by police at a restaurant.
Released in 1997, Sobhraj lived in Paris, giving paid interviews to journalists, but went back to Nepal in 2003.
He was soon spotted in Kathmandu’s tourist district by journalist Joseph Nathan, now an adviser to the Himalayan Times daily, and arrested in a casino.
“He looked harmless … It was sheer luck that I recognised him,” Nathan told AFP on Thursday. “I think it was karma.”
A court there handed him a life sentence the following year for killing US tourist Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975. A decade later he was also found guilty of killing Bronzich’s Canadian companion.