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Charlie's Devils



TALES FROM THE SCRIPT: Farrukh Dhondy with Sobhraj

Charles Sobhraj is serving a life sentence for murder in Kathmandu jail. His appeal against the conviction was heard in mid-July by the Nepalese Supreme Court, which will deliver its verdict on the 31st. If the court releases him, Charles will probably go back to France as he is a French citizen. Or, perhaps his marriage to a Nepali a couple of years ago has given him the right to stay, though knowing him I doubt if Kathmandu would keep him amused for long. My last contacts with Charles were unusual and disconcerting. I have known Charles since he called me in London in 1997 in my office at Channel 4 TV.

"Mr Dhondy, this is Charles Sobhraj - you might have heard of me!" he said in his French accent.
"Yes, of course, " I said, "you are the serial killer!"
"You could put it like that, " was the response.
"I mean the alleged serial killer, of course, " I said.
"It doesn't matter, " he said, "My cousin told me to get in touch with you because you are the best man in Europe. " Wondering how I deserved such an accolade, I asked him his cousin's name. Yes, I did know him from college in Pune.
"Yes I know Raj, but the best man for what?" It was slightly alarming.
"I am out of Tihar jail after twenty years and want to sell my memoirs. You are a writer. . . "
I was also a TV executive and TV executives don't pass up stories when they, like the proverbial London bus, run you over.
"Of course, " I said "But your cousin is. . . Sindhi?"
"Yeah. My father. See, my name is not Charles Sobhraj, it's actually Gurudev Bhavnani. My father's first name is Sobhraj and my French stepfather called me Charles after de Gaulle. "
I was already hooked. Yes, he should come to London from Paris.

My own literary agent was a very polished lady and I felt, even though she tolerated me, that Charles Sobhraj wouldn't exactly be her ideal client. I came up with another. Giles Gordon, well known on the European literary circuit had, according to recent gossip, landed at the Frankfurt Book Fair carrying a briefcase whose contents he, protesting commercial secrecy, wouldn't at first reveal. Swearing a young publisher to secrecy, having had a few drinks, he told her the briefcase contained the memoirs of Sean Connery, sex, disputes and all. To be sold to the highest bidder. Soon the news was all over the Fair and Giles was much in demand at cocktails. He returned to his room and dialled.

"Mr Connery, you don't know me, I am a literary agent and if you write your memoirs I can get you $4 million for them. "
Yes, said Charles, when I related the episode — that was his man!


Charles kept in touch and proposed some time later that I write a film about him. I said I wouldn't write a script that depicted him as an innocent or as a hero. He could tell me the truth. He thought it over instantly. Over the months, he spoke about his exploits past and present - everything short of murder. He implied that all allusions to killing should be left ambiguous.

Ambiguity about action is difficult in a film, but it was then true that Charles had never been convicted of murder outside of Thailand, from where he had escaped. There had been two books written about him, one by Richard Neville and the other called Serpentine by Thomas Thompson. Both books named Charles and characterised him as a serial killer.

The script I wrote, while not transgressing my deal with Charles, tackled the story from a different angle. The script went through very many incarnations and passed through many hands, including those of Aamir Khan, Shekhar Kapoor, Jamil Dehlavi, Soli Irani, Jackie Shroff and Ismail Merchant, all of whom were interested in the script - but for one reason or another it never got made. In the business of film, only the relentless and stubborn optimists don't move on.

My contact with Charles and his ex-wife Chantal continued. Some years later, Charles told me he had evidence of Middle Eastern clients attempting to buy nuclear materials from underground organisations in Europe. This was, if true, journalistic dynamite and I put Charles in touch with Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator (now Mayor of London). The story, Boris decided, was too big for his weekly - it should be broken by a national newspaper as it could possibly prove that agents of a particular regime in the Middle East were involved in trying to buy material to build Weapons of Mass Destruction.

It was a sensational claim, but Charles didn't produce the proof. Instead he went to Nepal on his own business, was arrested, tried for a murder which took place some twenty-eight years earlier and sentenced to life.

I followed the trial. There seemed to me to be absolutely no evidence to convict Charles Sobhraj for that crime and in most civilised societies one relies on the courts to require absolute proof to convict. That hadn't been produced.

If he wasn't convicted on proof of murder, why was he in jail? Why was he in Nepal? The questions triggered a chain of invention and I began writing a fiction about a serial killer and intriguer called Johnson Thaat.

The Bikini Murders is avowedly a work of fiction. That it was constructed from my experience of the world and people is incontestable, but that it is a biography of any living person is wide of the mark.

When it was published by Harper Collins in India, it excited some attention and I was asked by Arnab Goswami to appear on Times Now to discuss it. Following Gore Vidal's dictum never to turn down an invitation to appear on TV or to have sex, I went. Arnab began with a generous description of the book and then sprang his TV trap. He had Charles Sobhraj on camera from Kathmandu saying he didn't know me or I him, but complaining I had defamed him. He called me a 'middle-man', which I took to be a judicious euphemism for 'pimp'.

There were more tricks in professor Goswami's bag. On screen appears a French lady lawyer who asserts that I have libelled Charles Sobhraj who has never killed anybody. I know this lady lawyer. She is married to Carlos 'the Jackal', who is serving a life sentence for high-profile assassinations. She has also been on the legal teams of politicians accused of genocide.

Like writers, lawyers have to rub shoulders with the unsavoury without taint. She was adamant in her denunciation of me and my book. (Whew! At least one careful reader then?)

My reply to both of them was that I was surprised that Charles voluntarily identified with my fictional character Johnson Thaat whom the book characterised as a serial killer. Can one defame a convicted killer by calling a fictional character one?

No libel papers arrived, though I did hear from Charles months later. I was in France when he phoned.
"I say ole man, I read your book and it's very good for saying there is no evidence against me in the Nepal court. "
"It's not about you, Charles. "
"Still, it's good, " he says.

Has the Nepalese Supreme Court ordered copies of The Bikini Murders? Can my fiction about Johnson Thaat affect what they determine about the very corporeal Charles Sobhraj?

LIFE AND CRIMES OF THE 'BIKINI KILLER'


1944
Born Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj in Saigon. Dad denied paternity

1963

Served his first sentence in a jail near Paris

1975

During the course of the year, he is said to have gone on a killing spree: Teresa Knowlton (US), Jennie Bollivar (US), Vitali Hakim (Sephardic Jew), Henk Bintanja, (Holland), Cornelia Hemker, (Holland) and Charmayne Carrou (Hakim's girlfriend) - all of them murdered in Thailand. Israeli student Avoni Jacob and Jean-Luc Solomon from France became his victims in India. Nepal police also discovered the badly burnt bodies of American tourist Connie Jo Bronzich and Canadian Laurent Armand Carriere in the Kathmandu valley;they were suspected to have been murdered by Sobhraj

1976

Arrested in New Delhi for the murder of Solomon;Nepal police also put together a case claiming he visited Nepal and murdered Bronzich

1986

Escapes from Tihar jail where he was serving his sentence for the last 12 years. Later caught in a bar in Goa by top cop Madhukar Zende who has the unique distinction of arresting Sobhraj twice. The jailbreak means 10 more years are added to his murder sentence

Feb 1997

India frees Sobhraj and extradites him. Both the Indian and French governments ask Nepal if there are any cases against him but Nepal says no

Sept 2003

Sobhraj visits Kathmandu and is arrested by the police when a local daily publishes his picture. He is charged with entering Nepal on a fake passport in 1975;court dismisses the false passport case;and the Nepal police re-arrest him for Bronzich's murder

Aug 2004

Sobhraj is sentenced to 20 years imprisonment after Kathmandu district court finds him guilty of murders of Carriere and Bronzich. Sobhraj fights the conviction

2005

Patan Appellate Court upholds the district court verdict;Sobhraj then appeals to the Supreme Court

2006

Supreme Court begins to hear his appeal

2008

Sobhraj marries Nihita Biswas, daughter of his lawyer Shakuntala Thapa

July 2010

The Supreme Court of Nepal puts off his appeal on the murder sentence

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