Who is Charles Sobhraj, the killer who sparked India's largest manhunt?

A notorious robber in the 1970s, Sobhraj served a prison term in India for killing foreign tourists before escaping jail by drugging prison guards

French serial killer Charles Sobhraj leaves Kathmandu district court after a hearing in Kathmandu in 2011. Reuters
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Charles Sobhraj, a serial killer blamed for killing at least 20 western backpackers by drugging their food and robbing them, is on Thursday expected to walk from prison in Nepal because of his old age.

Sobhraj, 78, has been held in a high-security prison in the capital Kathmandu for the past 19 years for killing an American backpacker in 1975. He confessed to a number of other killings, but later retracted the confession.

Nepal’s top court on Wednesday ordered his release from prison on “humanitarian grounds”, citing his age.

Nepalese legislation allows the release of convicts above 65 years of age who have completed 75 per cent of their jail term and have shown good conduct during imprisonment.

But this is not the first time he will walk out of prison.

A notorious robber in the 1970s, Sobhraj served a prison term in India for killing foreign tourists before escaping jail by drugging prison guards.

He was also wanted in Thailand where he was charged with drugging and killing six women whose bodies were found near a resort in Pattaya.

Criminal journey

Sobhraj was born on April 6, 1944 in Saigon in Vietnam — now Ho Chi Minh City — to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother. His parents never married and his father denied paternity.

He spent part of his childhood on the rough streets of Saigon and was shuttled back and forth between his parents. His mother later had another child and married a soldier in the widely despised French army, which re-occupied Vietnam after the Second World War. They then moved to France.

In 1963, Sobhraj was arrested for stealing a car in France. After his release, he married and had a daughter and spent time moving between the high society of Paris and the criminal underworld.

French serial killer Charles Sobhraj with Nepalese police after a court hearing in 2014. AFP

He later abandoned his family.

He then began a romantic relationship with a French woman, Chantal Compagnon, with whom he travelled across Eastern Europe, robbing tourists, before arriving in Bombay, now Mumbai in India.

There Chantal gave birth to a baby girl.

In 1973, Sobhraj was arrested after an unsuccessful robbery attempt on a jewellery shop in the capital Delhi but was able to escape with Ms Compagnon’s help by faking illness.

He was recaptured but escaped the country while on bail. He fled to Kabul and then to Iran, leaving his family behind. Ms Compagnon left him and moved back to France.

He eventually linked up with Marie-Andree Leclerc who became his romantic partner and accomplice. During the 1970s, he mainly befriended western tourists in Asia, drugging and killing them.

For years, Sobhraj travelled around Europe and Asia. He escaped custody in at least four countries. Wherever he went, he preyed on unsuspecting tourists.

Fluent in several languages, he was a skilled con artist who often targeted young backpackers exploring what was known as the "hippie trail", which ran through Afghanistan and Nepal into South-East Asia.

He had tried to poison a group of French tourists in India in 1976. Several of his intended victims were able to fight the drug's effects long enough to get help.

Bikini killer

Sobhraj famously earned the name “bikini killer” after killing an American tourist whose body was found in a tidal pool, wearing a bikini, in Pattaya in Thailand. Some of his other victims were also found in bikinis.

While Thailand wanted him extradited to face murder charges there, the Indian government decided to try Sobhraj and Ms Leclerc for the murder of an Israeli tourist. Convicted on a lesser charge, Sobhraj was sentenced to seven years.

The Thai government was told that it would have to wait until after he finished his sentence before being extradited and tried there.

The Serpent

Sobhraj possessed excellent skills to deceive and evade the authorities earning him the moniker “The Serpent”.

In 1986, Sobhraj escaped with several other inmates from Tihar Prison in New Delhi after drugging guards during a party.

He was captured less than a month later. This escape proved to be yet another of his calculated moves. With his additional sentence for the escape, Sobhraj remained in India until after the statute of limitations on his crimes in Thailand ran out.

His escape from Tihar led to one of the largest manhunts in Indian police history.

After completing his sentence in 1997, Sobhraj was released from jail. He eventually returned to France, but his newfound freedom would not last long.

Central Jail in Kathmandu, Nepal, where Charles Sobhraj was imprisoned. Reuters

He was arrested in Nepal in 2003 and was later tried and convicted of the murder of two backpackers, Connie Jo Bronzich and her Canadian friend Laurent Carriere, in 1975. He tried to escape from prison in 2004, but failed.

In late 2007, Sobhraj's lawyer appealed to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to intervene with Nepal. Sobhraj's lawyer claimed that he was the victim of racism.

Jail wedding

In 2008, he announced his engagement to Nihita Biswas, an interpreter and the daughter of his lawyer. She was just 20 years old at the time. The two married in 2010 in prison.

Per Wednesday’s court ruling, Sobhraj will be deported to France within 15 days of his release.

Updated: December 22, 2022, 1:20 PM