UN acquits Sobhraj, asks Nepal for his release, compensation

August 5th, 2010 - 2:32 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, Aug 5 (IANS) Seven years after remaining behind bars in Nepal for the alleged murder of an American tourist and having his “not guilty” plea rejected by Nepali courts, Charles Sobhraj has finally a silver lining with the UN saying he did not get a fair trial and asking the government of Nepal to free him as well as pay compensation.

The decision, poles apart from the judgment handed down last Friday by Nepal’s Supreme Court, comes from the Human Rights Committee, the wing of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva that monitors whether the countries signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are implementing it.

In November 2008, five years after Sobhraj was arrested from a casino in Kathmandu, charged with the murder of Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975 and found guilty, his French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre filed a complaint with the UN, saying her client did not get a fair trial in Nepal.

During its 99th session in Geneva from July 12-30, the UN committee has ruled that Sobhraj was not allowed access to judicial remedies, the courts were biased and his basic rights were violated.

“In accordance with the covenant, the state is under an obligation to provide (Sobhraj) with an effective remedy, including the speedy conclusion of the proceedings and compensation,” the committee said in a statement dated July 27 that was forwarded to his lawyer in Paris on Wednesday.

The committee also noted that Nepal, by signing the Covenant in 1996, agreed to respect the competence of the committee and was obliged to prevent similar violations in future.

The UN clean chit comes as a shot in the arm for Sobhraj, who became branded the “Bikini Killer” in Nepal as prosecutors sought to dredge up allegations of crimes committed in Thailand, Afghanistan and beyond without providing any evidence to prove that he killed Bronzich in Kathmandu in 1975.

The sole “evidence” produced by Nepal Police were two photocopies of two guest registration cards they said Sobhraj had signed in 1975 when he stayed in two upmarket Kathmandu hotels, posing as Henricus Bintanja, a Dutch tourist.

The UN committee noted that though a court of appeals had thrown out a case by police claiming that Sobhraj had come to Nepal in 1975 using Bintanja’s passport, Nepal’s Supreme Court wrongly revived it.

In 1975, there was no immigration law in Nepal, which came into effect only in the early 1990s.

The committee, in its ruling, said the Supreme Court applied the immigration act of 1992 for a crime in 1975, violating the principle that “no one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act which did not constitute a criminal offence in the time when it was committed”.

According to the UN agency, the trial was heavily biased against Sobhraj.

“The committee is concerned to note the assertion in both the district court (which first convicted Sobhraj of murder in 2004) and the Patan Appellate Court’s judgments that if a person claims that he was in another place during the incident then he has to prove it … the presumption of innocence , which is fundamental to the protection of human rights, imposes on the prosecution the burden of proving the charge, guarantees that no guilt can be presumed until the charge has been proved beyond reasonable doubt, ensures that the accused has the benefit of doubt, and requires that persons accused of a criminal act must be treated in accordance with this principle.”

It also came down heavily on the Nepal government for holding Sobhraj in illegal detention after his arrest in 2003 for 25 days without allowing him to consult a lawyer, having court proceedings in Nepali without providing him an interpreter and protracting the trial in the Supreme Court.

“Most hearings were cancelled or postponed at the last minute without reasons being provided,” it said. “The length of proceedings and high number of postponements and cancellations can’t be justified.”

Asked to defend Nepal against Sobhraj’s complaint, Nepal’s permanent representative to the UN, Madhu Raman Acharya, answered in April 2010 that Sobhraj’s trial was conducted fully in accordance with Nepali laws. Also, since he was not a Nepali citizen and was a convicted criminal, the rights guaranteed by Covenant did not apply to him.

“This has no basis in law,” the UN committee said. “Right of access to courts and tribunals and equality before them must be available to all individuals, regardless of nationality and status.”

Finally, the UN committee has given the government of Nepal six months’ time to take necessary action.

“The committee wishes to receive from the state within 180 days information about the measures taken to give effect to the committee’s views,” it said.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)

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