IN a chilly, rat-infested prison in the mountain kingdom of Nepal, serial killer The Serpent has plenty of time to consider his murderous depravity.
Highly intelligent, with a charm that proved irresistible to women, Charles Sobhraj murdered as many as 24 young travellers on the so-called Hippy Trail in the Seventies.
Now 76, Sobhraj even managed to woo glamorous reality TV star Nihita Biswas, 44 years his junior, while under lock and key in the Central Jail in Nepali capital Kathmandu.
Yet with a Houdini-like ability to escape prisons, Sobhraj is locked up alone in his bedbug-ridden cell.
At the sprawling prison, head jailer Laxmi Prasad Bastola, 40, told The Sun Sobhraj survives on a daily rice ration of 700 grams, plays chess and reads to pass the time.
Once suave, the killer has lost his hair and good looks and suffered heart failure in 2017.
Dr Raamesh Koirala, who performed a three-hour life-saving heart op, told The Sun: “When I opened his chest, I thought, ‘I am holding the heart of a heartless man’.
“He committed all of those brutal murders, so you would think he would be a fearless person.
“But by the time he came to me he was very fearful. He was terrified of dying and desperate for me to save his life.”
Life in his damp cell is a far cry from Sobhraj’s years in plush casinos and five-star hotels as a globe- trotting jewel smuggler and murderous svengali.
Projecting an air of sleazy glamour
Sobhraj is likely aware that his barbarous infamy is now known to a new generation after the BBC screened mini-series The Serpent, a hit dramatisation of his killing spree.
Laxmi added: “He has access to television and newspapers. He can watch all international channels here.”
Sobhraj himself isn’t talking — at least not without having his palms greased with silver.
When The Sun contacted him through authorities, he demanded 3,000 US dollars for an interview.
The quick answer to a man trying to cash in on decades of bereavement and misery was a firm: “No”.
Portrayed by French actor Tahar Rahim in the BBC series, Sobhraj is seen with his lover Marie-Andree Leclerc — played by Jenna Coleman — exerting a cult-like hold over travellers they meet in Asia.
Alongside his menacing sidekick Ajay Chowdhury — played by Amesh Edireweera — Sobhraj is seen befriending then sadistically drugging and killing Westerners who had travelled East looking for adventure.
Projecting an air of sleazy glamour, Sobhraj is believed to have killed as many as ten travellers in 1976 alone on the Hippy Trail through Thailand, India and Nepal.
His bizarre love affair with Nihita isn’t featured in the drama that has proved one of lockdown’s biggest hits.
The relationship began in April 2008, after she met Sobhraj while acting as an interpreter for his French lawyer.
The pair said it was “love at first sight”.
Sobhraj was again exhibiting his hypnotic and seductive powers.
They were engaged three months later, with Sobhraj characteristically boasting that once released, he would fly to Paris to buy the finest engagement and wedding rings.
At the time Nihita, then 20, said of the father-of-one: “I don’t know what he was. What he is now is important.
“He is a good man, I have seen the way he cares for his family.
“We have a good relationship.”
The pair were able to meet daily as Nihita’s mother, Shakuntala Thapa, also acted as his lawyer.
In October 2008 the couple married inside Central Jail.
The bride wore a pink T-shirt and trousers while vain Sobhraj kept on his flat cap to hide his baldness.
In 2011 Nihita appeared on Bigg Boss, India’s version of Big Brother, saying of Sobhraj: “I am proud to have him as a husband. I have nothing to hide.”
Nihita’s mother was outraged when a fellow contestant asked her daughter: “Did you have sex with Sobhraj?”
Shakuntala responded: “We have a conservative society in Nepal. People don’t ask such questions.
“Nihita is young and led a sheltered life.
“We encouraged her to join the show thinking she would make friends with people from different cultures and broaden her horizon.”
Nihita — who was unavailable for comment yesterday — was the first contestant voted out.
Martial arts expert Sobhraj made the unfathomable decision to return to Nepal as a free man in 2003, despite being wanted there for killing two travellers in the Seventies.
Even his Nepali former lawyer is baffled.
Lok Bhakta Rana told The Sun: “Why did he return? That’s the millionaire dollar question.”
Sobhraj and beautiful sidekick Leclerc had travelled to Nepal and befriended travellers Connie Jo Bronzich, 29, and 26-year-old Laurent Carriere in December 1975.
Canadian Laurent’s torched body was found in a gully 22 miles from Kathmandu. His throat had been cut from ear to ear.
Californian Connie’s body was found badly burned. She had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest.
As a young boy, retired police officer Ganesh KC was among villagers who chanced upon the body.
The 56-year-old said: “It was a heinous crime that had a deep effect on my young mind.
“It made me want to be a police officer.”
The cop would later lead the murder probe that convicted Sobhraj.
Sobhraj and Leclerc were finally caught in India in July 1976 and sentenced to 12 years’ jail for the attempted robbery of a group of French students.
Leclerc was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and allowed to return home to Canada, where she died in 1984, aged 38.
Sobhraj, under a 20-year arrest warrant, was still wanted for murder in Thailand, where he was likely to face the death penalty.
So in 1986, two years before he was due to be released, he staged a party for his guards, drugged them and escaped.
As he hoped, his sentence in India was extended by a decade.
In 1997, Sobhraj, then 52, walked free and returned to Paris for a comfortable life cashing in on his infamy.
He is a master at hiding his emotions
There was talk of a Hollywood biopic and reports of him charging “fans” $5,000 to lunch with him.
Then, inexplicably, he flew to Nepal. He was soon arrested.
Nepali lawyer Ananta Raj Luitel, 45, who has written a book about Sobhraj, told The Sun: “It’s a mystery why he came back. He was Nepal’s most wanted man.”
Sobhraj knew prosecutors would struggle to prove he had been in Nepal in 1975 because back then he had travelled on the passport of a Dutchman he had murdered.
He said at the time: “This is a huge miscarriage of justice. I came to Nepal to make a documentary.
“My passport states I am Charles Sobhraj. I don’t think there is anyone else in the world who would use that name voluntarily. That proves I have nothing to hide.”
Now he looks set to die in Central Jail — still protesting his innocence — after being sentenced to life in 2004 for the murder of Connie Jo. In 2014, he was handed a second life term for murdering Laurent.
Dr Koirala knows The Serpent as well as any in recent years after dozens of appointments.
“He is softly spoken and is a master at hiding his emotions,” the medic, who wrote a book on Sobhraj, revealed.
“He thinks he knows everything and thinks he is the most important person in the world.
“He is cool and calculating, very self-centred, a narcissist, but I don’t think he is a psychopath. I’d consider him a cold-blooded murderer.”
Alone in his cell, perhaps The Serpent has read the epitaph provided by the Dutch diplomat whose three decades of amateur sleuthing helped with Sobhraj being caged.
“If there is a Hell,” Herman Knippenberg said, “I am sure he is a candidate.”
- Additional reporting: Robin Perrie
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