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Nepal top court orders re-opening of Sobhraj case

Notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj has now been given fresh hopes as court has ordered his case to be re-opened next month.

india Updated: Jun 19, 2006 15:40 IST

Languishing in Nepal's most fortified prison cell with two courts upholding a life sentence, notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj has now been given fresh hopes as the country's top court has ordered his case to be re-opened next month.

Supreme Court judges Ram Prasad Shrestha and Rajendra Prasad Koirala have ordered that the French national be allowed to appeal against the life sentence slapped on him for the murder of American backpacker Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975.

The Sobhraj drama unfolded in Nepal in 2003 after the accused was arrested from a posh casino in Kathmandu and charged with the double murder of Bronzich and her Canadian boyfriend Laurent Armand Carriere.

For the first time in his long career in crime spanning over seven countries, he was found guilty of murder and given a 20-year jail term.

Now a new act would be added to it with the Supreme Court Sunday saying the earlier verdicts could have been wrong and ordering re-opening of the case on July 5.

"By admitting the appeal, the Supreme Court indicated the earlier two courts might have erred," said an exultant Raja Ram Dhakal, one of the five lawyers fighting Sobhraj's final battle for freedom.

"Nearly 80 per cent of the cases admitted by the Supreme Court end with the accused being freed."

When the final hearing begins, the two judges have asked the government for several clarifications.

In 2004, a district court judge found Sobhraj guilty of the murder of Bronzich on the basis of circumstantial evidence.

According to police, Sobhraj had escaped to Nepal from Thailand, where he was wanted for murder, using the passport of a Dutch tourist, Henricus Bintanja.

Sobhraj was suspected to have killed Bintanja after befriending him.

In 1975, a tourist checked into the five-star Soaltee Crowne Plaza hotel, signing his name in the guest register as Henricus Bintanja.

Nepal police say it was actually Sobhraj and claim Sobhraj's handwriting resembles the scrawl in the register.

However, they never produced the original register in court during the two long trials though Nepal's laws say xerox copies can't be accepted as evidence.

Now the apex court is asking the prosecution to produce the original record and get it verified by an independent handwriting expert.

After the discovery of Bronzich's badly charred body on the outskirts of Kathmandu, police found her diary among her belongings.

She wrote she had met a man called Charles Sobhraj, who was an expert on gems. She is also said to have been seen in a car hired by Sobhraj from a travel agency.

However, the car driver, Purna Bahadur Maharjan, was never called to give evidence.

Sobhraj had pointed out the lapse during his trials but was ignored. Now the Supreme Court has also asked that the driver be cross-examined.

During the trials, police referred to a summary of Bronzich's murder made by a police officer, Chandra Bir Rai, who had forwarded it to the Indian government in the 70s.

At that time, Sobhraj was doing time in India's Tihar jail for manslaughter and robbery and Nepal police tried to get him extradited.

Though after completing his sentence in India, Sobhraj was deported to France, Rai's report came back to haunt him nearly three decades later. However, now the Supreme Court has also asked for Rai to be cross-examined.

With the new developments, Sobhraj's lawyers feel there is fresh hope for the man once known as the Serpent for his cunning and ability to escape from high-security prisons.

"Sobhraj remains unperturbed," said lawyer Ram Bandhu Sharma, who met him in prison on the eve of the fresh hearing. "There have been times when we have felt harassed and disheartened. But he always put fresh heart in us."

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