‘Serpent’ Sobhraj, decidedly amongst the most notorious


Charles Sobhraj has been one of the most infamous and notorious criminals who has left a trail of crime in multiple South Asian countries. He was set free on Friday from a Nepalese prison following a court’s orders based on his “good behaviour and advancing years’’. The 78-year old French National of Indian and Vietnamese origin served 19 years in the Nepalese jail on charges of killing two backpackers sometime in the 1970s and was arrested for the twin murder in early 2000 from a Kathmandu Casino. Sobhraj has also had a number of encounters with the Indian police and served time at Delhi’s Tihar jail from where he made a dramatic escape in 1986. The mention of this jailbreak is made prominently in Amod Kanth’s forthcoming book since he was incharge of the investigations that probed this sensational crime. I can recall that as a young reporter in the Times of India, I had covered the jail break which could have matched the best Bollywood and Hollywood scripts. Sobhraj had served Ladoos laced with drugs to the guards after telling them that it was his birthday and once they got fully intoxicated, he and some of his associates walked out. David Hall, a friend of Sobhraj who was also an excellent photographer had also escaped along with him. However, when the police finally caught up with them, Hall had some extraordinary film coverage of the escape. He also had in his possession a small clip of Sobhraj embracing a woman in a Warders room and kept his camera focused on the Warder’s uniform for some time to drive home the point. The photos also indicated the proximity Sobhraj had with at least two journalists including a woman and they were also questioned during the course of investigation. Sobhraj has always had a very sharp mind and great presence of mind. The only time I saw him was in 1980 when while working for National Herald where I was for five and half months, I was assigned by D.K.Issar my Chief Reporter, an assignment to meet Sunil Batra in the Tihar jail. Batra was amongst the accused in the Bank van robbery case of the early 1970s and was the only one who had been sentenced to death. His sister, Rupa and her then fiancée, Benjamin Israel had approached the media to hear him out and thus I was put on this assignment. I accompanied Rupa in her car to Tihar and after going through the motions of getting the required permission gained entry into the jail premises. While I was speaking to Sunil Batra, a man suddenly appeared and calling me by my name, asked me whether I wanted to see the warders beating a prisoner. Batra told me to ignore him. I was foxed as to how did this man know my name. Batra said that his sister comes very often so he recognizes her and also informed that he was Charles Sobhraj and he must have seen my name in the jail register kept at the gate and thus addressed me by name. I was completely unnerved but that is how Sobhraj has always been perhaps, a criminal who was a deceitful charmer. Incidentally the court later commuted Batra’s sentence to Life Imprisonment like his other accomplices. In India many foreign nationals have committed crime. There was this guy named Danial Walcott and another one, Donze. Both were gold smugglers and once when Walcott was arrested in Hyderabad, he escaped and took a private plane to flee from the city. However, while leaving, he flew over the jail and threw pamphlets for other prisoners to read. Charles Sobhraj is a free man and may be sent to France. However, this is certainly not the last one has heard of him. He can perhaps never leave the path of crime, the only thing he knows.