A cunning killer slithers to freedom by CHRISTOPHER KREMMER in New Delhi

PROFILE

15 February 1997


He's the killer with the sensitive face, except Charles Sobhraj does not admit to being a killer, and has never been convicted of murder.


So why did the one of the world's most notorious criminals, a man linked with more than a dozen murders, do the things he did?


"Your question is tricky," he replies, and then that quintessential Sobhraj line: "I say I regret the past, but don't ask me which part."


A New Delhi magistrate has given him bail after more than 20 years in jail. His release only awaits the issuing of French identity papers.


And to those who fear that his release poses a threat? "I feel it is rubbish. I spent 20 years inside. I faced trial. I paid what I had to pay. I look forward to a new person, and a new life. I want to forget the past."


Biographers, like Australian Richard Neville - to whom he allegedly admitted murdering his victims - have been disowned. "Since that book has appeared I have not spoken to him, and I have refused to meet him."


His advocate, Rajan Bakshi, who has represented Sobhraj on and off since 1978, says his client is not acting like a man who thinks he is about to be freed. "It doesn't seem to have registered with him," Mr Bakshi said. "But this is the closest he's ever been."


Sobhraj is planning his next move, helped by an understanding of India's bureaucracy fetish. He has a typewritten application to the court, in triplicate, asking permission to "meet with my friends". A space is left for our names.


Permission is granted and we sit at a table at the rear of the courtroom. "Yes, I want to be free," he says. "After 20 years, what do you think? Every hour was like a year."


His face is suffering, but for a man of 52, it is free of furrows. His large eyes are the darkest brown and his black hair is worn over the collar.


He is short and trim. His fingernails, which completely cover his fingertips, are manicured and clean. He has a gentle smile that has led so many to like and trust him, so as to drug his victims, before robbing them and, it is alleged, killing them. The same trust that allowed him to make fools of the police and escape from jails around the world. Occasionally a tremor will cross the clear, olive skin of his cheek, perhaps the flicker of another personality, a darker side, but you want to ignore it.


His charm allowed him in 1986 to escape from Tihar Central Jail in New Delhi, driving off in a staff car after spiking the warders' sweets at a birthday party.


He is a romantic and also an escape artist and sometimes the two collide, as when he escaped from a Kabul prison, leaving his wife behind bars.


But Sobhraj's skill has always been his ability to calculate the main chance, as when he allowed himself to be recaptured in India after escaping jail.


After 10 years in prison, and with no murder convictions, Indian authorities prepared to release their most famous prisoner. Sobhraj knew he would be extradited to face trial in Thailand for a string of killings of young tourists, known as the Bikini Murders. He had to commit a big enough crime to prevent that happening.


Hence his escape from Tihar jail. Having escaped, it was necessary to be caught again to face Indian law.


He bought the biggest motorcycle he could find, and rode to the former Portuguese colony of Goa, on India's west coast.


There he began frequenting the resort's most popular restaurant nightly, making expensive and very loud international telephone calls from the bar. Eventually, the police were called in Bombay, who rushed to Goa to "capture" him.


Now, a decade later, his determination to be free rests on a belief that Thailand's 20-year statute of limitations will prevent him being charged for the Bikini Murders.


He says he has information that police are under orders to arrest him, as soon as he is released, on charges of travelling on an expired passport. He hopes to persuade the authorities to deliver him instead to the French embassy, where a new passport can be issued - Sobhraj was born in Saigon when the French ruled Vietnam. Passport in hand, if that is how things turn out, he will walk free on bail, but unable to leave India until the conclusion of his trial on one charge of murder and another of poisoning.



What did he intend to do at his release?


"I will go to a temple and a church, and then after that, I would like to walk in the street for just two hours, alone. Just to feel the freedom and the light."


Several times during the interview, a policeman politely whispers to him: "Charles. We must go." But Sobhraj ignores him. The policeman waits patiently, a virtue he may have learned from his prisoner. "Everyone knows the warrants against me have expired," Sobhraj says. "That issue is over - only the Indian Government has been slipping over it - the case is moving in my direction. I have to face it with patience."


Then, with a flash of pride so brief you could easily miss it, he says: "This time, when I made my move (in the court) I had already thought several moves ahead."


With an excitement that is almost childlike, he talks of negotiations for his biography, French and American film deals, and something with Australian television.


"You could become a rich man," I suggest. "What will you do with the money?"


He pauses, and you sense that his spontaneity is gone and calculation has returned. "I'll give some to my family - to my sisters - and if I make enough, I want to form an institute for poor children, to give them access to high-grade education, which is a big problem in India because the kids have no-one."


Finally, the police guard prevails in his polite urgings, and Sobhraj agrees to be taken to the police bus. But before he leaves, I ask him about his hat. Why is he never seen without it?


"Because I have become a bit baldy here," he says. "That's why I wear it. I'm waiting to get out and have a transplant."


--The Sydney Morning Herald Photo Credit: Unsplash