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Crime doesn’t pay

Unlike Britain, India does not bar criminals from selling their stories. So how much public interest is there in what they have to say? Farrukh Dhondy writes.

india Updated: Jul 13, 2011 23:24 IST
Farrukh Dhondy

Last week I was interviewed on an Indian TV channel about profiting from murder. One of their researchers called me in London for my opinion on Maria Susairaj, of whom and whose conduct I had never heard. I naturally asked, “Why me?”

“Because you wrote a novel about Charles Sobhraj.”

“It’s fiction and it’s not about Charles Sobhraj,” I wanted to say, but after the channel called insistently a couple of times — and keeping in mind Gore Vidal’s dictum of never turning down an offer to have sex or appear on television — I consented to give them five minutes.

I immediately researched the life and crimes of Susairaj and went on camera. The charming interviewer asked me what I thought of Bollywood moguls attempting to resurrect their careers by proposing to cast her in films.

Disgusting!

She then asked if I knew that Susairaj had been offered a crore of rupees to feature in a reality TV show. The victim whose body she had helped to dispose of was himself a TV executive of some sort.

These TV-wallahs have no shame!

Should murderers and rapists (not to mention directors and TV executives) be allowed to make an enormous profit from the proceeds of the notoriety that crime gives them?

There is apparently no law against it in India. There is in Britain. Criminals can’t sell their stories for money. They can confess to a journalist or a writer but they can’t be paid for it.

British journalists, entertaining news about the colour of celebrities’ underwear, have become very wary of criminal notoriety. Obviously, if a serial killer wants to write a book on cookery or gardening, he or she is free to be paid for it, as long as the book doesn’t contain recipes for human flesh or hints on how buried bodies fertilise the soil.

I experienced the ban at second-hand when some years ago I received a call from Charles Sobhraj in Paris. He wanted to know what ‘red mercury’ was and presumed that with my background in physics I’d be able to tell him. I did.

Russian scientists claimed to have concocted an antimony pseudo-radioactive explosive that could trigger a dirty fusion bomb. Very many international physicists pooh-poohed the claim, some even contending that it was theoretically impossible.

Why did Sobhraj want to know? He said he was working with Eastern Europeans who had some to sell and he was in touch with people in West Asia who wanted to buy. Business. I didn’t at the time put one and one together.

The Iraq war broke out with George Bush and Tony Blair telling their countries that Iraq was building its capability to wreak terror through chemical, biological and nuclear weapons on the US and the world.

The next time Sobhraj called me, I asked him who these sellers and buyers were, and he said he had exchanged several e-mails with them, some coded and they were gentlemen from the Arab world. He even said he had been to Bahrain and talked to the prospective buyers.

It occurred to me that if he was telling the truth it may very well be that a West Asian government was exploring the possibilities of nuclear weaponry. Could the gentlemen have been representing Iraq? Sobhraj said they could. I said if he could prove it, he had a very big international story on his hands. He asked if I could help him place it.

I called Boris Johnson and Peter Oborne, both of whom worked for the weekly The Spectator. Would they like to investigate a story that perhaps proved the opposite of what the world now believed — that Saddam Hussein had no plans to build or obtain weapons of mass destruction? They said the equivalent of ‘Yes please!’ and Sobhraj came to London to provide them with proof.

Boris said the story was too big for The Speccie and handed it over to a Daily Telegraph journalist. At which point I left. The Daily Telegraph journalist called me and said Sobhraj wouldn’t give him any of the e-mails or any other proof of his story until he was paid a substantial sum.

The journalist said he couldn’t do that. It would be paying for knowledge of clandestine and criminal activity.

I believe they bargained for a few days and then Sobhraj pushed off to Nepal and was jailed for life for a murder he may have committed some 20 to 28 years previously. I didn’t follow the trial but was told by someone who did that the evidence for the conviction was flimsy and would have been thrown out of a European court.

Now it occurs to me there may be countries in which Sobhraj can sell his true confessions for large sums of money, which won’t be very useful within the walls of Kathmandu Jail.

I don’t know whether Barack Obama, whose country still has troops on the ground in Iraq, would want to prove, for political, historical or even military-industrial-financial reasons that Iraq had, indeed, under Saddam set in train inquiries about nuclear triggers if not fuels.

Again, I don’t know what clout the US or even Bush and Blair’s friends now have with the government of Nepal. But if Sobhraj was willing to trade the evidence he previously wanted to sell, he might be able to strike a bargain.

(Farrukh Dhondy is a London-based author and screenplay writer. The views expressed by the author are personal)