Killing With Charm: ‘The Serpent’ left behind a trail of blood and bluff

The seasoned French assassin and fraudster Charles Sobhraj is deported to his country of citizenship on grounds of health concerns from Nepal prison which housed him since 2003 for the string of murders he committed in the 1970s .
The laws of the Himalayan republic allows compassionate discharge of bedridden prisoners who have served three-quarters of their sentence. Sobhraj had a cardiac surgery in 2017.
But while he was in jail (and breaking it too), after hopping from one major crime to another, several works brought forth the life and doings of the 78-year-old hardcore criminal.
Sobhraj has been featured in four biographies, three documentaries, and the Indian film ‘Main Aur Charles’. His life has been dramatically chronicled most recently in the Netflix series, ‘The Serpent’.
A section titled “The Bikini Murders” by Noel Barber in Reader’s Digest got Sobharaj the moniker of the ‘Bikini Killer’ as that was the attire of several of his victims that were found dead. He came to be known as the ‘Serpent’ due to his “snake-like ability” to be elusive.
Born as Charles Gurumukh Sobhraj Hotchand Bhawnani, the murderer, fraudster and thief, chose his victims among Western tourists travelling on the hippie trail of South Asia in the 1970s. Sobhraj is said to have murdered at least 20 tourists in South and Southeast Asia.
He was convicted and jailed in India from 1976 to 1997. Upon his release, he went to Paris and continued with his criminal ways.
After his return to Nepal in 2003, where he was arrested, tried, and received a life sentence.
On December 21, after serving 19 of 20 years of the sentence, the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered his release from prison owing to his old age and health.
Known for being “handsome, charming and utterly without scruple,” Sobhraj exploited his natural assets to the hilt to advance his criminal career and acquired a ‘celebrity’ status
Sobhraj was born in Vietnam to an Indian father and Vietnamese mother. His parents were never married and his father denied paternity. Rendered stateless at first, he was taken in by his mother’s husband, a French Army Lieutenant stationed in French Indochina.
He shuttled between Southeast Asia and France with the family, and grew up feeling neglected before his half siblings.
A brief timeline of his criminal history is as follows:
As a teenager, Sobhraj took to committing petty crimes and received his first custodial sentence for burglary in 1963. He served his sentence at Poissy prison near Paris.
While imprisoned, Sobhraj talked prison officials into granting him certain favours such as permission to keep books in his cell. Around this time, he met and endeared himself to Felix d’Escogne, a wealthy young man and prison volunteer.
After being paroled, Sobhraj lived with d’Escogne and spent his time moving between the high society of Paris and the criminal underworld. He gathered wealth through a series of burglaries and scams.
During this time, Sobhraj met Chantal Compagnon, a young Parisian woman that he eventually married after being on the run from police for driving a stolen car.
1970: With a pregnant Compagnon, Sobhraj left France for Asia to evade arrest. After travelling with fake documents and robbing tourists whom they befriended along the way in Eastern Europe, Sobhraj reached Bombay later that year. Chantal gave birth to a baby girl named Usha, in the city.
Meanwhile, Sobhraj resumed his criminal life, stealing cars and smuggling. His growing profits went towards his budding gambling addiction.
1973: Sobhraj was arrested and imprisoned after an unsuccessful armed robbery attempt on a jewellers at Hotel Ashoka. Sobhraj managed to escape as Compagnon faked illness, but not for long.
Sobhraj borrowed some money from his father for bail and subsequently fled to Kabul, where the couple began robbing tourists on the hippie trail and were caught again. Sobhraj escaped similarly (feigning illness and drugging the hospital guard) and reached India once again.
He then fled to Iran, leaving his family behind. Compagnon, wished to leave behind their criminal past and returned to France.
Sobhraj spent the next two years on the run, using as many as 10 stolen passports. He passed through various countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
He was joined by his younger half-brother, Andre, in Istanbul, where they engaged in various criminal activities in Turkey and Greece. The two were arrested in Athens eventually.
After an identity-switch hoax went awry, Sobhraj managed to escape but his half-brother was left behind. Andre was handed over to the Turkish police by Greek authorities and served an 18-year sentence.
While on the run, Sobhraj’s lifestyle was kept up either by posing as a gem salesman or drug dealer to impress and befriend tourists, whom he cheated.
Sobhraj gathered followers by gaining their loyalty; his modus operandi was to put his target in difficult situation and then help them out of it. In one case, he helped two former French policemen recover missing passports that Sobhraj had already stolen.
In another, Sobhraj provided shelter to a Frenchman, Dominique Renelleau, who appeared to be suffering from dysentery — Sobhraj had actually poisoned him.
Eventually, he was joined by Ajay Chowdhury, another criminal who became Sobhraj’s right hand.
In 1975, Charles Sobhraj and Ajay Chowdhury committed their first known murders.
Sobhraj claimed that most of his murders were accidental drug overdose but investigators said that the victims had threatened to expose Sobhraj, hence eliminated.
A young woman from Seattle, (depicted as Jennie Bollivar in the book Serpentine) was found drowned in a tidal pool in Thailand, wearing a flowered bikini.
Her post-mortem revealed that her death was not a swimming accident but murder.
Likewise, the cold-blooded murders were strategized and executed.
With the murder of Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob in India for his passport, Sobhraj travelled with his accomplices to Singapore, then to India.
In March 1976, he returned to Bangkok, knowing that police is looking for him.
Sobhraj, who had entered with precious gems concealed in his body and was skilled in bribing captors, lived comfortably in jail.
His trial was a spectacle as he hired and fired lawyers at his will, bringing in his recently paroled brother Andre to assist, and eventually going on a hunger strike. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Bribing prison guards at Tihar jail had scaled unmatched heights, as Sobhraj led a life of luxury in with a television and gourmet food in the prison, having befriended both guards and prisoners. He gave interviews to well-known Western authors and journalists in 1977 and 1984.
Sobhraj’s prison sentence in India was due to end before the 20-year Thai statute of limitations expired, ensuring his extradition and almost certain execution for murder in Thailand.
In March 1986, his tenth year in prison, Sobhraj threw a big party for his guards and fellow inmates, drugged them with sleeping pills and walked out of the prison.
On April 6, 1986, Inspector Madhukar Zende of the Mumbai police apprehended Sobhraj from O’Coqueiro Restaurant in Goa. His prison sentence was then extended by 10 years.
On February 17, 1997, 52-year-old Sobhraj was released with most warrants, evidence and even witnesses against him long lost. Without any country to extradite him to, Indian authorities let him return to France.
Sobhraj retired to a comfortable life in suburban Paris. He charged large sums of money for interviews and photographs. The rights to a film based on his life were sold for over US$15 million.
In 2003, Sobhraj went back to Nepal — one of the few countries where he could still be arrested and where he was still eagerly sought by authorities. He reportedly returned to Kathmandu to set up a mineral water business.
When he was spotted, the police reopened the double murder case from 1975. Sobhraj was later sentenced to life imprisonment by the Kathmandu district court on August 20.
Late in 2007, Sobhraj’s lawyer appealed to then French president Nicolas Sarkozy for intervention with Nepal.
In 2008, Sobhraj announced his engagement to a Nepali woman, Nihita Biswas, who was later seen in the TV show Bigg Boss.
On 7 July 2008, issuing a press release through his fiancee Biswas, Sobhraj claimed he was never convicted of murder by any court, and said that the media should not call him a ‘serial killer’.
In July 2010, the Supreme Court of Nepal postponed the verdict on an appeal filed by Sobhraj against a district court’s verdict sentencing him to life imprisonment a murder committed in 1975.
Sobhraj had appealed against the Kathmandu district court’s verdict in 2006, calling it unfair.
On 30 July 2010, the Supreme Court upheld the life sentence issued by the district court for the said murder, plus another year and a fine of Rs 2,000 for entering Nepal illegally.
The seizure of all Sobhraj’s properties was also ordered by the court.
In 2010, he married his Indian-Nepali interpreter, Nihita Biswas, in prison. She is the daughter of his lawyer, and 44 years his junior.
On September 18, 2014, Sobhraj was convicted in the Bhaktapur district court of the 1975 murder of Canadian tourist Laurent Carriere.
In 2018, Sobhraj was in critical condition and had received several open heart surgeries and was scheduled for more.
On December 21, 2022, the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered his release from prison because of his old age, after serving 19 of 20 years of the sentence. He was deported to his country of origin on December 23.

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