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Nepali lawyer stalks Charles Sobhraj

india Updated: Jul 07, 2006 16:49 IST
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There can't be a greater contrast than between Nepali lawyer Bishwa Lal Shrestha, 61, who reads the Bhagavad Gita every day and doesn't touch alcohol, and his better-known contemporary, 62-year-old Charles Sobhraj, once on the wanted list of nearly 30 countries for murder, robbery and passport forgery.

Yet, as Sobhraj awaits the final verdict in a murder case that could set him free or end his sensational criminal career in a dingy prison in Kathmandu, the two men are bound together in a mesh of astonishing coincidences spanning three decades.

The first link was forged in December 1975 when Shrestha was a policeman investigating the gruesome murder of two foreigners, whose badly burnt bodies were discovered within 48 hours of each other.

"I still remember the sight of the two bodies, as if it were yesterday," a pensive Shrestha says.

"I also remember distinctly the man suspected of the killings. He had an Indochinese face, exuded wealth with his Rolex watch and expensive clothes, and was supremely calm and confident."

A study of murders on Interpol files and their modus operandi led Shrestha to conclude that the suspect was Sobhraj, wanted for five murders in Bangkok and more in India, Pakistan, Malaysia and other countries.

According to Interpol, Sobhraj killed Dutch tourist Henricus Bintanja in Bangkok and travelled to Nepal on the victim's passport.

The Nepal Police contend that in Kathmandu Sobhraj befriended an American backpacker Connie Jo Bronzich and her companion Canadian Laurent Armand Carriere, killed both and burnt the bodies to prevent quick identification.

Shrestha questioned Bronzich's other travelling companions who led him to a foreigner who was staying at the five-star Soaltee Crown Plaza hotel under Bintanja's name.

Although police were certain that Bintanja was actually Sobhraj, the case flew out of the window when the suspect slipped out of the hotel though it was under surveillance and fled Nepal.

"We had one of the most sensational and internationally wanted criminals in our hand and yet he eluded us," Shrestha reminisces the disappointment. "It was a bad blow."

Shrestha kept up a dogged watch on Sobhraj's activities across the world.

He went to Bangkok to see the notorious house where the half-Indian, half-Vietnamese had systematically drugged and robbed gullible young tourists, to India's Tihar Jail, where Sobhraj served a long sentence for manslaughter, and to France, where Sobhraj lived as a teenager after his mother married a Frenchman.

In 1983, Shrestha quit the force and began private practice as a lawyer.

Then 20 years elapsed before Sobhraj came into his life again.

In September 2003, Sobhraj was spotted in Kathmandu and arrested from a posh casino. The police reopened the double murder and though the Carriere case was dismissed, he received life imprisonment for killing Bronzich.

As Bronzich's father John B Claborn sent notes to the government and police authorities, from Hawaii thanking them for giving his daughter justice, Claborn and Shrestha came in touch.

As Sobhraj appealed against the verdict, Claborn asked Shrestha to fight for Bronzich, and the former police officer once asked to track Sobhraj down became the lawyer fighting to keep the Frenchman behind bars.

The government lawyers and Shrestha succeeded in persuading the appellate court about Sobhraj's guilt and the sentence was upheld. But this year the case was opened yet again when Sobhraj went to the Supreme Court.

As the new hearing starts on September 6, Shrestha will face Sobhraj again, fighting for Bronzich and hoping to finally put the case to rest.

However, he is full of admiration for his adversary. "Sobhraj is a brilliant man," he says sadly.

"He has charisma, knows the law of several countries inside out and can speak several languages fluently. Something must have gone badly wrong in his childhood to make him a serial killer instead of a great man."

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