Sobhraj battles shadowy adversary for freedom

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS

Kathmandu : With a fresh countdown starting for Dec 19 when Nepal’s Supreme Court is expected to give its final verdict in a murder case that put Charles Sobhraj — the crime genius of the 70s pursued by the Interpol and media alike — behind bars, it is not only the 63-year-old who is holding his breath.

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A shadowy adversary who had been trying to pin him down for three decades is also anxious about the verdict, hoping the life sentence Sobhraj received in Kathmandu’s district court for the murder of an American backpacker in 1975 would stick.

When Sobhraj, who hit the headlines worldwide in the 1970s with a string of cases involving robbing Western tourists, was sighted in Kathmandu in 2003, the past he had hoped to leave behind him was resurrected.

He was arrested for the murder of Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975 and the media trained its flashlights on him once again, digging up his past exploits as well as the characters that had played a key role in the 1975 drama.

However, the man who had been stalking him since the 70s and had a major contribution in his conviction has not been connected by anyone with the case –except Sobhraj.

“I think it is an ego problem with him,” Sobhraj says, talking about Herman Knippenberg, a retired Dutch diplomat who was in service in Bangkok in the 70s when two Dutch tourists were found murdered in the Thai capital.

Knippenberg was put on the trail of Sobhraj when a letter from Amsterdam arrived at the Dutch embassy in Bangkok in 1976.

The writer said his sister in law Cornelia Hemker and her boyfriend Henricus Bintanja, who had planned to visit Thailand during their journey through Asia, had not contacted their families for six weeks, causing anxiety.

Although Bintanja was found murdered in Bangkok, someone used his passport to travel to Nepal and check into a hotel.

Nepal Police say Sobhraj came to Kathmandu using Bintanja’s passport, made friends with Bronzich and her Canadian companion Laurent Armand Carriere and killed both.

Sobhraj denies the charge, saying he never came to Nepal before 2003.

When Kathmandu’s district court found him guilty in 2004, the verdict was based partly on what police say is a confession Sobhraj made during an earlier arrest in India.

Arrested by the Indian police in 1976, Sobhraj allegedly made a confession, saying he had visited Nepal in 1975.

Sobhraj is fighting the confession in Nepal’s Supreme Court, saying he never made any. He also points out that the confession doesn’t bear the name of any official. According to the Indian penal code, an authentic confession would have to be signed on each page by the district magistrate.

The confession was forwarded to Interpol by someone from New Zealand and reached the police in Nepal.

Sobhraj claims it was from Knippenberg, who has been living in Wellington since his retirement.

“How can a confession reportedly taken by the Indian Police be sent to Nepal Police from New Zealand?” he asks.

Interestingly, after Sobhraj’s conviction, Knippenberg wrote an article on his quarry, giving his version of the incidents.

Lawyers acting on behalf of Bronzich’s father presented it in Nepal’s court as evidence.

Sobhraj also says a Western TV channel defamed him by making a documentary on him, portraying him as a serial killer though no country had ever convicted him. That programme too, he says, was influenced by Knippenberg.