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'Serpent' serial killer Charles Sobhraj arrives in France


French serial killer Charles Sobhraj, responsible for multiple murders in the 1970s across Asia, arrived in France on Saturday after almost 20 years in prison in Nepal.

Nepal's top court ruled on Wednesday that he should be freed on health grounds and deported to France within 15 days. On Friday, he was released and put on a flight at Kathmandu airport to take him to Paris via Doha. While on the flight to Doha, he insisted to an AFP journalist that he was "innocent".

Sobhraj's life was chronicled in the series "The Serpent", co-produced by Netflix and the BBC. Posing as a gem trader, he would befriend his victims, many of them Western backpackers on the 1970s hippie trail, before drugging, robbing and murdering them. "I feel great... I have a lot to do. I have to sue a lot of people. Including the state of Nepal," Sobhraj told AFP on Friday onboard the plane. Asked if he thought he had been wrongly described as a serial killer, the 78-year-old said: "Yes, yes."

He landed in the French capital on Saturday morning, an AFP reporter confirmed. On arrival at Paris, he was taken away by border police for extra "identity checks", according to an airport source. The airport source said he was "not wanted" by the authorities in France and that once all the checks had been carried out, he would be able to leave the airport.

- 'Bikini killer' - Born in Saigon to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother who later married a Frenchman, Sobhraj embarked on an international life of crime and ended up in Thailand in 1975. Suave and sophisticated, he was implicated in the murder of a young American woman, whose body was found on a beach wearing a bikini. Nicknamed the "bikini killer", Sobhraj was eventually linked to more than 20 murders. He was arrested in India in 1976 and ultimately spent 21 years in jail there, with a brief break in 1986 when he drugged prison guards and escaped. He was recaptured in the Indian coastal state of Goa.

Released in 1997, Sobhraj lived in Paris, giving paid interviews to journalists, but went back to Nepal in 2003.

- 'Karma' - He was spotted in a casino playing baccarat by journalist Joseph Nathan, one of the founders of the Himalayan Times newspaper, and arrested. "He looked harmless... It was sheer luck that I recognized him," Nathan told AFP on Thursday. "I think it was karma."

A court in Nepal handed Sobhraj a life sentence the following year for killing US tourist Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975. A decade later, he was also found guilty of killing Bronzich's Canadian companion. Talking to AFP among bemused fellow Qatar Airways passengers on Friday, Sobhraj insisted he was innocent of the killings in Nepal.

"The courts in Nepal, from (the) district court to high court to supreme court, all the judges, they were biased against Charles Sobhraj," he said. "I am innocent in those cases, OK? So I don't have to feel bad for that, or good. I am innocent. It was built on fake documents," he added. Thai police officer Sompol Suthimai -- whose work with Interpol was instrumental in securing the 1976 arrest -- had pushed for Sobhraj to be extradited to Thailand and tried for murders there. But on Thursday, Sompol told AFP he did not object to the release, as both he and the criminal he once pursued were now too old. "I don't have any feelings towards him now that it's been so long," said Sompol, 90. "I think he has already paid for his actions."

For decades Asia's most wanted man, French serial killer Charles Sobhraj, terrorized the continent with a string of murders in the 1970s that targeted tourists.

The man nicknamed "the Serpent" was freed on health grounds from prison in Nepal on Friday. Here is a timeline of his alleged killing spree:

- 1944: Born in Asia - Sobhraj is born in Saigon on April 6, 1944, to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother who later remarries a Frenchman.

In 1963, he embarks on a life as an international crook, which will take him to Greece, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

In 1970, he moves to India, where he is arrested a year later for a jewelry heist. He flees while out on bail and goes to Greece, where he also manages to escape after being arrested.

- 1975: 'Bikini killer' - He arrives in Bangkok in 1975 with his Canadian girlfriend and an Indian associate. He hangs out with tourists, passing himself off as a trader in precious stones. In October, the body of a young woman is found on a Thai beach in Pattaya, wearing a bikini. Other victims follow and are beaten, strangled, or burned to death.

Sobhraj, who will become known as the "bikini killer" allegedly uses his victims' passports for mysterious trips linked to trade in precious stones and drugs. Under a cloud of suspicion, he flees to India.

- 1976: Arrested in India - In July 1976, he is arrested in India after trying to drug a group of more than 20 French tourists in a New Delhi hotel. He is also accused of the murder of another French tourist, Luc Salomon, who had been poisoned in a Mumbai hotel.

In May 1982, he is handed a life sentence by an Indian court for the 1976 murder of Israeli tourist Alan Jacob, but is acquitted on appeal a year later for lack of evidence. He remains in prison for his other crimes.

- 1980: Thailand demands extradition

- In late 1985, India agrees to Thailand's request to extradite Sobhraj for the murders of a Turkish tourist and a young American woman, Teresa Knowlton. He risks the death penalty there. He then escapes from jail in New Delhi in March 1986 by feeding drug-laced sweets to his guards.

He is recaptured three weeks later in a Goa restaurant. But delays in the Indian legal system mean the prison-break case does not come to trial for several years, by which time Thai authorities have lost interest in having him extradited.

Accused of at least 15 murders across 10 countries, by the time he leaves Indian jails, his alleged crimes have fallen under the statute of limitations in Thailand.

Upon release, he goes to France and lives there quietly until 2003 before returning to Nepal.

- 2004: Life sentence - Nicknamed the "Serpent" for his skill in slipping and sliding out of the judicial dragnet, Sobhraj returns to Nepal to set up a shawl export company under a false identity.

He is quickly recognized and arrested in Kathmandu for the 1975 murders of two tourists, Canadian backpacker Laurent Armand Carriere and American Connie Joe Bronzich.

He receives a life sentence in August 2004.

- 2022: Freed from prison - On December 21, 2022, Nepal's top court ordered Sobhraj to be released from prison on health grounds. He is freed on December 23 and put on a flight at Kathmandu airport to Doha en route to Paris, where he lands early Saturday. While onboard his flight, he tells AFP he thinks he has been wrongly described as a serial killer.

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