Charles 'The Serpent' Sobhraj freed from Nepal prison, heads to France

  • Sobhraj takes a regular flight to Doha en route to Paris
  • Nepal's Supreme Court ordered his release, citing his age
  • Known as the "bikini killer" and "The Serpent"

KATHMANDU, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Charles Sobhraj, a convicted killer who police say is responsible for a string of murders in the 1970s and 1980s, was released from a Nepal prison on Friday after nearly two decades behind bars.

The 78-year-old French national is suspected of killing more than 20 Western backpackers on the "hippie trail" through Asia, usually by drugging their food or drink in the course of robbing them.

He left Nepal early on Friday evening on a regular flight to Doha en route to Paris, said Katak Rawal, a Kathmandu airport official.

Nepal has barred Sobhraj from entering the country for 10 years, Pradashanie Kumari, acting director general of the immigration department, said.

The Himalayan nation's Supreme Court had on Wednesday ordered his release from prison, where he served 19 years of a 20-year sentence, citing his advanced age.

After his release, Sobhraj told news agency AFP, "I feel great... I have a lot to do. I have to sue a lot of people. Including the state of Nepal."

Sobhraj had been held in a high-security prison in Kathmandu since 2003, when he was arrested on charges of murdering U.S. tourist Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975.

He was dubbed the "bikini killer" in Thailand, and "the serpent", for his evasion of police and use of disguises. He has been the subject of several dramatizations, including a Netflix (NFLX.O) and BBC joint production released last year.

While in prison, Sobhraj married Nihita Biswas, a Nepali woman 44 years his junior, in 2008.

"I'm happy and have great respect for our judiciary and Supreme court," Sobhraj's mother-in-law Sakuntala Thapa told Reuters partner ANI after news of his release was announced.

Sobhraj has denied killing the American woman, and his lawyers said the charge against him was based on assumption.

Several years later, he was also found guilty of killing Bronzich's Canadian friend, Laurent Carriere.

He was also suspected of many more murders, including in Thailand, where police say he allegedly drugged and killed six women in the 1970s, some of whom turned up dead on a beach near the resort of Pattaya.

'YOU ARE CHARLES'

Sobhraj was jailed in India for poisoning a group of French tourists in the capital, New Delhi, in 1976, before he could stand trial on the charges against him in Thailand.

He escaped from India's Tihar jail in 1986 after drugging prison guards with cookies and cakes laced with sleeping pills.

Police arrested Sobhraj days later at a restaurant in the Indian beach holiday state of Goa.

"I walked up to their table and said 'you are Charles'", Madhukar Zende, the police officer who caught him in Goa, told The Indian Express newspaper in an interview published on Friday.

A statue of Sobhraj stands at the restaurant in Goa to this day. He was jailed in India until 1997 when he returned to France.

Born to a Vietnamese mother and Indian father, he was described by his associates as a con artist, a seducer, a robber and a murderer.

His true number of victims, spanning decades and several countries, remains unknown.

Reporting by Gopal Sharma, writing by Shilpa Jamkhandikar and Shivam Patel; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Tomasz Janowski and Arun Koyyur

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