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Charles Sobhraj may be free in 2013
Published on 26 Aug. 2009 11:48 PM IST
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Trapped in a legal labyrinth in Nepal after the Himalayan republic became the first country to find him guilty of murder, yesteryear’s formidable crime maestro Charles Sobhraj could finally walk out a free man in 2013. This is because in Nepal, life imprisonment means a 20-year jail term. “Also, the government makes allowances for holidays,” says Bishwa Lal Shrestha, the former police inspector who investigated the murder in 1975 and now, by a twist of fate, is a lawyer hired by the victim’s family to fight Sobhraj in court. Besides that, the government has additional concessions for senior inmates. When he was arrested, Sobhraj was 59. Today, he is 65 and entitled to have his sentence waived by one-fourth. Rough calculations indicate that if the Supreme Court finds him guilty of murder and orders him to serve out the rest of his life imprisonment, with the reductions, he could be out in 2013. The 65-year-old, who was arrested from a casino in Kathmandu after his surprise appearance in the capital six years ago, has been behind bars since then, fighting a series of court battles that have ended in defeat one after another, despite the prosecution’s inability to provide any real evidence. The first blow came in 2004 after the Kathmandu district court found the legendary son of an Indian tailoring entrepreneur in Vietnam guilty of the murder of an American backpacker way back in 1975. Two years later, Sobhraj, who had never before been convicted of murder, lost his appeal against the 20-year life term. As he began a dogged fight in Nepal’s Supreme Court, claiming he had been falsely implicated, his hopes of a speedy trial and eventual release were thwarted when the court swooped down on a technical detail and asked a lower court to reopen the trial. The next blow came this year when the lower court, asked to determine if Sobhraj had come to Nepal in 1975 using a forged passport, found him guilty despite his protestations that he had never visited the Himalayan nation before. Now the man, who has inspired numerous books and documentaries, is bracing for a new legal battle as his lawyers have sought to appeal against the forged passport verdict. However, it’s going to be a long and uphill battle. Though the appeal was registered last month, the apex court is yet to fix a date for the hearings. First, it was busy readying for the visit of Russia’s chief justice. Then in September, the courts will shut down for almost a month as Nepal celebrates its biggest religious festival Dashain. It is therefore unlikely that fresh dates will be fixed before October. Even then, Sobhraj will find himself in a queue and his case might not come up for hearing immediately. Also, with the lower court ruling that it considers Sobhraj to have visited the country in 1975, the Supreme Court, which has been sitting on the murder appeal, now has a way out. Now the Supreme Court can uphold the murder conviction on the ground that the lower court has established Sobhraj was in Nepal in 1975 and therefore had the opportunity as well as motive to kill American tourist Connie Jo Bronzich. Even if the judges now proclaim Sobhraj innocent and set him free, that too would be a lengthy process. Given the way prosecution lawyers have been dawdling over Sobhraj’s cases, seeking the maximum delay possible, the trial is not likely to be concluded before 2010 at the earliest.

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