Nepal court sentences Sobhraj to legal labyrinth (Second Lead)

January 13th, 2009 - 7:28 pm ICT by IANS  

Kathmandu, Jan 13 (IANS) Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj’s hope of freedom were dashed Tuesday by Nepal’s Supreme Court, which sent him to a legal labyrinth by ordering a trivial case dismissed almost six years ago by a lower court to be returned there for fresh trial.In an eerie replay of the nearly same order pronounced by two other apex court judges two years ago, judges Min Bahadur Rayamajhi and Kalyan Shrestha told a packed court room that the 34-year-old murder case for which Sobhraj is serving life imprisonment here would be resumed only after the Kathmandu district court hears anew a passport forgery case.

Given the slow pace of Nepal’s courts, the order means Sobhraj would have to stay behind bars for an interminable period, which could exceed the 20-year term slapped on him for murder.

The 64-year-old, feeling unusually nervous and tense, had decided not to make an appearance in court Tuesday. However, his 20-year-old Nepali fiancĂ©e Nihita Biswas, her brother Bijoy and their mother Shakuntala Thapa, who is also Sobhraj’s lawyer, listened in stunned disbelief as the judges gave the one-minute decision after an agonising wait of hours.

Lawyer Bishwa Lal Shrestha, a former police officer now pitted against Sobhraj, told IANS after the verdict: “We are the aides of the court. The court decides what to do.”

Sobhraj’s tense vigil in his cell began in the morning as he awaited a visit by Nihita to tell him if he would walk out of prison a free man or get ready for another long fight. But with the verdict coming late, visiting hours were over at the jail and the bad news was broken by the prison authorities.

The roots of Tuesday’s court battle go back to December 1975 when two badly burnt bodies were found in the Kathmandu Valley. While one was identified as that of American tourist Connie Jo Bronzich, the police could only establish that the second one as a male.

Police said Sobhraj, who was then running a forged passport and other rackets in Bangkok, came to Nepal using the passport of Dutch tourist Henricus Bintanja, who was killed in the Thai capital.

Sobhraj, according to their deposition, befriended Bronzich, allegedly for the valuable jewels she had bought in India, and killed her.

Though at that time the police kept the suave tourist who was staying under Bintanja’s name in a luxury hotel in Kathmandu under surveillance, the suspect fled to India across the porous border.

Dust gathered on the Bronzich file for 28 years till a Nepal daily splashed the photograph of Sobhraj on its front page in 2003, saying the crime maestro of the 70s had been sighted in Nepal’s tourist hub Thamel.

Soon after that, the French master conman was arrested from a casino and charged with coming to Nepal in 1975 on a fake passport.

Though the court dismissed the case, on the same day the police re-arrested Sobhraj from the Kathmandu district court premises and slapped the new charge of Bronzich’s murder.

This time, luck deserted the man once called the Serpent for his ability to wriggle out of prisons and difficulties. He was found guilty of murder for the first time in his life despite allegations of over a dozen other previous killings and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 2005, the dogged Sobhraj lost his first appeal against the verdict and began another determined battle in Nepal’s Supreme Court.

The apex court was to have pronounced the final verdict in 2007 but instead, in a surprise decision, the judges asked the fake passport case to be reopened.

In December 2008, it had seemed the verdict would be finally announced but was instead deferred to Jan 13, 2009.

Sobhraj says he did not come to Nepal before 2003 and that the police had forged documents to implicate him.

His formidable army of lawyers has pointed out that police have not been able to provide a single original document but only Xeroxes, which are not admissible as evidence.

The sensational trial received a fresh twist when Bronzich’s family appointed as their lawyer the police inspector who questioned the suspect in 1975. Lawyer Bishwa Shrestha said he recognised Sobhraj as the man he had interrogated in the past.

The buzz over the trial spread with India’s film industry Bollywood announcing the making of a new film on Sobhraj with super star Sanjay Dutt playing the lead.

Also last year, Sobhraj’s former friend and screenplay writer Farrukh Dhondy launched his new novel “The Bikini Murders”, which is actually a thinly disguised version of Sobhraj’s criminal career woven with sex scenes that Sobhraj contemptuously dismissed as “cheap and pornographic”.

But perhaps the most sensational factor in the Sobhraj trial has been his announcement that he has become engaged to a Nepali woman 44 years his junior. The two plan to marry formally in Paris when, and if, he is freed.

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