Sobhraj suffering from Nepal poll fever

March 29th, 2008 - 1:55 pm ICT by admin  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, March 29 (IANS) With a crucial election less than a fortnight away in Nepal, the poll fever has severely affected someone, though he is neither a contestant nor a political activist. Yesteryear’s crime maestro Charles Sobhraj, known for his nerves of steel in the 1970s when he masterminded a network of crime targeting western tourists in several Asian cities, is now suffering from a new syndrome he had never encountered before.

“I have a terrible headache, I can’t sleep at night,” the 64-year-old told IANS from his well-guarded prison in Kathmandu, where he has been serving a life sentence for murder since 2004.

Sobhraj, once dubbed the “serpent” by the tabloids for his ability to wriggle out of the most stringently watched-over prisons, is now hobbled by age and retirement from a career that brought him both notoriety and riches, inspiring several books and films.

After serving a 20-year jail term in India’s Tihar Jail, he was deported to France where he finally settled down, marrying and dropping out of public gaze.

But fate added a twist to his tale and in 2003, when he came to Nepal, apparently to explore business and film opportunities, he was arrested by Nepal Police, who charged him with murdering an American backpacker in 1975.

The district court found him guilty and slapped a life sentence.

Though Sobhraj fought the verdict, he lost the appeal.

Now, a battery of formidable lawyers are fighting in Nepal’s Supreme Court, contending that the police faked evidence against Sobhraj and he was wrongly convicted due to his earlier reputation.

The Supreme Court verdict was to have been pronounced in December. However, the judges instead decided to reopen an old passport forgery case though it had been dismissed by two lower courts.

Now, with the hearing scheduled for next week, the gaunt, depressed Sobhraj shows signs of breaking down.

His tension has increased with Nepal poised for a historic constituent assembly election on April 10, the first national polls in almost a decade.

A powerful group of lawyers, the Nepal Bar Association (NBA), asked the apex court to put all cases on hold till the poll, adding to his anxiety.

Though the court decided not to do that, it has however approved a provision that could further delay Wednesday’s hearing.

A record number of civil society members are taking part in the election that will write a new constitution for Nepal.

That includes lawyers, including a former president of the NBA.

If a lawyer desires to take part in the poll campaign, he can have his cases postponed.

Though Sobhraj’s own lawyers are not likely to ask for a deferral, the government lawyers may use the opportunity.

“A postponement request can come any time,” Sobhraj’s lawyer Ram Bandhu Sharma told IANS. “It can come even on Wednesday morning and cause a further delay.”

At 64, time is running out for Sobhraj, who has lost his earlier stoicism.

If he loses the final appeal, he intends going to the International Court of Justice, which means the start of yet another protracted battle.

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