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Sobhraj spends bleak Christmas in Nepal

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : For the last two years, Charles Sobhraj, yesteryear’s sensational crime maestro, had looked forward to Christmas, hoping to be released from Nepal’s biggest prison, where he is doing time for murder, and be reunited with the apple of his eye, his little daughter in Paris.

But this Christmas, there’s no such joyful anticipation for the 65-year-old with a protracted legal battle having just begun.

On Wednesday, Sobhraj’s lawyers doggedly started a new trial in Nepal’s Supreme Court, hoping to get their man acquitted of two charges that are interlinked.

In 2005, two years after the French national was sighted in a Kathmandu casino and arrested, the Kathmandu district court found him guilty of having come to Nepal clandestinely in 1975 and murdered an American tourist, Connie Jo Bronzich.

Sobhraj is fighting the 20-year life sentence, saying he never came to Nepal before 2003, when he was illegally detained by police and falsely implicated.

Along with the murder charge, he is also fighting the lesser case of passport forgery.

Police say his secret visit in 1975 was made using the altered passport of a Dutch tourist he befriended and killed in Bangkok.

In June this year, the Patan Appellate Court found him guilty of the false passport charge and slapped him a fine and a short jail term.

Though a lesser charge, the passport case is important because if the lower court holds him guilty of having come to Nepal in 1975 on a fake passport, the Supreme Court can use the verdict to nail him in the murder appeal as well.

So, Sobhraj’s lawyers now have to fight both the murder and passport forgery case in the apex court.

On Wednesday, one of the lawyers, Ram Bandhu Sharma, told the two judges presiding over the trial that there was no primary evidence to prove Sobhraj had come to Nepal in the Hippie era.

For six years, police have been producing only Xerox copies as evidence, which are not admissible as per Nepal’s laws.

Now, with two new judges hearing the double appeal – Ram Prasad Shah and Gauri Dhakal – the defendants will have to once again cover the ground they did in the last six years to familiarise the new judges with the intricate case that continues to generate media attention worldwide.

Consequently, the trial, which should be over in two months, can be expanded over years.

With the holiday season descending on Nepal and court hours being reduced due to winter, there would be additional causes for delay.

Though Sharma could not finish his arguments due to lack of time, the next hearing has been scheduled almost a month later, on Jan 20.

Sobhraj’s family says he was convicted on the basis of unfounded media reports and the judges hearing his case earlier shied away from delivering a just verdict based on evidence due to fear of public outcry.

The prolonged stay in Kathmandu’s Central Jail has brought Sobhraj, who reportedly left crime after his deportation from India to France in the late 1990s, as much publicity as his incarceration in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

He hit headlines worldwide after announcing his love for a Nepali woman 44 years his junior and inspired efforts by India’s Bollywood directors to make movies based on his career in crime.

He also inspired a novel by writer and his former friend Farrukh Dhondy and is said to be currently writing his autobiography.