By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS
Kathmandu : Four years after he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of an American backpacker, Charles Sobhraj, once wanted by the police of several countries, finally had his break as the apex court Wednesday began hearing his final appeal for freedom.
Five of Nepal’s top lawyers, including a former attorney general, began defending the 63-year-old French national’s case before judges Anup Raj Sharma and Top Bahadur Magar in the Supreme Court. They argued that there was no evidence or witness to convict Sobhraj of the murder of Connie Jo Bronzich, who had come to holiday in Nepal from India in 1975.
In December 1975, the badly burnt body of Bronzich and her Canadian companion Laurent Armand Carriere were found in two different locations in Kathmandu valley, giving rise to suspicion that the double murder was the handiwork of Sobhraj, who was then based in Bangkok.
According to Nepal police, Sobhraj came to Kathmandu in December with his French girlfriend, using the passport of a Dutch tourist Henricus Bintanja, whom he had drugged to death in Bangkok.
While in Kathmandu, he stayed in the best hotels and befriended the two backpackers, plotting a gruesome end for them.
Three days after Carriere’s body was found, Thai Airlines’ passenger list showed a person travelling to Bangkok and returning to Kathmandu using the dead man’s name and passport.
Almost 30 years later, in 2003, when most people had forgotten the double murder, Sobhraj was photographed by a local daily here and the memory of the old case was revived.
Though Sobhraj asserted his innocence, saying he had never come to Nepal before, Kathmandu’s district court found him guilty on the basis of “circumstantial evidence” and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
The appellate court turned down his appeal against the sentence and though Sobhraj vowed to challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court, it took him almost two years to get the final hearing started.
Political upheavals in Nepal, strikes in the capital, Nepal’s long and many holidays and even technical errors by court clerks blocked the hearing.
However, finally, after the court re-opened Tuesday after yet another strike by employees, luck smiled on Sobhraj and his appeal came up for hearing.
His lawyers are pleading that Sobhraj’s reputation and international profile contributed to his conviction in Nepal.
They are also holding the media responsible, citing reports in the Indian, Thai and Nepali media as making assumptions that he committed the murders on the basis of his past record and influencing the judgements.
“It is for the prosecution to supply the burden of proof while the defendant is given the benefit of doubt,” Sobhraj’s lawyer Basanta Ram Bhandari told the court.
“But in Sobhraj’s case, it was just the opposite.” Bhandari says the “circumstantial evidence” is non-existent.
It consists of police claiming they found the dead woman’s bag in Sobhraj’s hotel room. They also say the signature in the hotel guest register resembles Sobhraj’s signature in his passport.
Sobhraj’s lawyers are pointing out that police never mentioned the bag in their case file. They were also not able to produce the original guest register and photocopies are inadmissible as evidence.
The hearing will continue next Wednesday.