The lethal charm of Charles Sobhraj: This week a serial killer stood in an Indian court, precisely where he wants to be. Tim McGirk reports on an audacious attempt to escape the gallows

Charles Sobhraj doesn't call what he does murder, he calls it 'cleaning'. By his own confession, he has cleaned many times. During one year, 1976, and for no obvious motive, he befriended and then sadistically killed 10 travellers on the hippie trail through Thailand, Nepal and India.

Yet he may never be punished. Sobhraj has gone as far as to mastermind his escape from a Delhi high-security prison - and perhaps his own recapture, too - to avoid being sent to Thailand where he would almost certainly receive the death penalty for his murders.

His trial for breaking out of prison began recently in Delhi, and the outcome will decide whether Sobhraj has outwitted the Indian justice system as he has done so many times before. The likelihood is that he will walk free - as a very rich man.

Sobhraj is a feline, handsome man with big eyes that have a wounded look. He is half-Vietnamese, half-Indian, and fully conversant with Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. He is also an expert in gems and psychology; like a diamond-cutter, he has a knack for spotting a flaw in a person's character and reshaping that person to a design of his own evil brilliance. 'What makes a man a murderer?' he was once asked.

'Either they have too much feeling and cannot control themselves, or they have no feelings. It is one of the two,' he replied.

Sobhraj himself is probably not sure what kind of a murderer he is. His rage is entirely cerebral, calculating. There is a storm going on inside his brain that is always hidden by his smile and that beguiling charm of which everyone talks his many women admirers, his Delhi jail wardens and fellow inmates. His victims probably thought there was nobody kinder, more genuinely friendly, than Charles Sobhraj, until he made them groggy with sleeping pills, drove them out into the countryside and viciously murdered them. 'I can justify the murders to myself,' he said after he was captured. 'I never killed good people.'

Sobhraj likes to brag about his crimes. He confessed the details of his killing spree, which lasted between 1975 and 1976, to his two Australian biographers, Richard Neville and Julie Clarke. But, as he warned them, 'in the unlikely event I will ever appear in court in Thailand I will deny everything.'

Herman Knippenberg, a Dutch diplomat previously based in Bangkok, who was responsible for putting the Thai police on Sobhraj's trail, said, 'It was all so easy for him. The murders, the deception, everything. He had got away with so much for so long that he believed he was invincible. Personally, I think he might have killed many more. Inside his Bangkok apartment, we found a stack of passports and driver's permits. They could have easily belonged to others.'

Sobhraj's favourite method was to make his victims ill, using anything from diarrhoea-inducing pills to itching powder, and then when they were weak and totally reliant on him, he would strangle them, mutilate them with a knife or shoot them. Then he would disfigure their corpses.

Money was not a motive for his 'cleanings'. His victims were backpackers and small-time drug smugglers carrying only paltry sums of cash. It appears that Sobhraj had begun to think of himself as a Nietzschean character, a criminal Superman who soared above everyone else's moral code.

Although he seems to consider himself above the law, he is adept at manipulating India's elephantine judicial system to his advantage. There are corpses strewn around several Asian countries, but it is only in Thailand that enough evidence has been gathered to bring him to trial for murder. According to Thai law, if a suspect is not caught and brought to trial within 20 years of the offence, the charges are automatically dropped. In other words, if Sobhraj can avoid extradition to Thailand for two more years, he is safe. India refuses to extradite any convict until he has served his punishment here. This is the loophole through which Sobhraj plans to squeeze.

He was finally caught in India on 5 July 1976. His last crime, in Delhi, had been grandiose but uncharacteristically sloppy. Intending to steal the money and passports of 60 young French tourists he drugged the entire party. But Sobhraj confused his doses, and the French people were instantly sick and suffered uncontrollable diarrhoea in the lobby of the Vikram Hotel in Delhi. The management of the hotel summoned the police and Sobhraj was arrested. A year later, he was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment for passport forgery, theft, the drugging of the young tourists and the 'culpable homicide' of a French traveller, Luke Soloman, in Benares.

By 1985, his jail term in India was nearly finished and extradition to Thailand loomed. He had two options: to lengthen his prison sentence or escape. Jail-breaking is another Sobhraj speciality. In 1971, he had jumped from an upper-storey window of a Rhodes police station. The same year, he faked an appendicitis attack and fled a Bombay prison. In 1972, he slipped out of a Kabul jail by drugging his captors. His most spectacular flight was from the Greek high-security prison on Aegina island, when he set fire to a police van and fled in the confusion. Even in Thailand, when his house was finally raided, Sobhraj convinced police he was an innocent American professor. In Delhi's high-security Tihar jail - which, with more than 8,000 inmates, is probably the largest in Asia - his Houdini-like exploits were well-known among inmates. Sobhraj was treated with awe, even by the convict gang leaders.

Finding volunteers to assist in his getaway was simple. He roped in three infam-ous bandits, Brij Mohan, Laxmi Narain, and Raju Bhatnagar, who had contacts in the Delhi underworld. Sobhraj needed cars, train tickets, several pistols and a hand grenade. His most trusted cohort was an Englishman, David Hall, a veterinarian in his mid-twenties who had been caught trying to smuggle one and a half kilos of hashish back to the UK. Convicted in 1985, Hall had begun a 10-year stretch in Tihar prison.

To size up his victims and collaborators, Sobhraj borrows a system from the French characterologist Rene Le Senne, which breaks people down into several types. According to this psychological shorthand, David Hall was Emotional, Inactive and Sentimental. This meant that Hall was clever but indecisive; Sobhraj viewed him as a follower, someone who needed a strong leader to map out his life's direction. Ever arrogant, Sobhraj saw himself as an Emotional, Active and Passionate type, like Napoleon.

Once he had lured Hall into the game, Sobhraj arranged for the Briton to be released from Tihar jail. In two of his past escapes, Sobhraj had faked vomiting blood and a bleeding ulcer, and now applied his expertise to Hall. A prison doctor diagnosed Hall as having a damaged kidney and released him on 12,000 rupee (250) bail. Instead of fleeing India, as many foreigners do when bailed for a small sum, Hall remained in Delhi to carry out Sobhraj's bidding.

Hall was also aided by Sobhraj's lawyer, Sneh Sengar, a young, attractive woman who had fallen in love with the murderer. (While Sobhraj was wooing her, he was engaging in ardent correspondences with dozens of adoring women, including one in Madras, to whom he sent money and a marriage proposal. Sobhraj always relied on female accomplices.)

The break-out was executed with only one small mistake: Hall allegedly left the hand grenade in the waste-basket of his hotel room, and it was cleared away with the rubbish. As it turned out, the hand grenade and the pistol were not needed.

For several weeks prior to the escape, Sobhraj had been buying food and presents for the Tihar guards, so they were not suspicious when Hall appeared on Sunday 16 March 1986, loaded with grapes and a tray of barfi sweets for Sobhraj's birthday. The food had been doctored with 820 pills containing a sleeping drug, Larpose, which Hall had allegedly pulverised, watered down and injected inside each grape and sweet. The unsuspecting wardens devoured the feast: 30 minutes later, the six armed guards at Tihar's gate No 3 were unconscious, slumped over their rifles, while Sobhraj, Hall and three other escapees were speeding towards the Rajasthan desert.

Afterwards, it seemed that, short of strolling back into his vacant cell and locking the door, Sobhraj did everything he could to get caught. Just two weeks later, Sobhraj and Hall were picked up at Goa's smartest restaurant. Sobhraj was sent back to Tihar jail, with his legend as the king of jail-breaks enhanced. Although the men were placed in adjacent cells, prison officials report that Hall refused to speak to his ex-mentor for several years. 'He was fuming. Hall finally realised that Charles had duped him into doing what was best for Charles - not for him,' said a senior prison officer.

To ensure that the jail-break trial would drag on for years, Sobhraj had instructed Hall to photograph every aspect of the escape, from the Llama pistol, to the fugitives' switch from car to train in Alwar, Rajasthan. This meant that every item they had photographed had to be tracked down by investigators.

The trick worked. Only last month, after spending more than eight years compiling hundreds of dossiers, was the Indian government's case against Sobhraj ready. Sobhraj's lawyer, Debashish Majumdar, has lined up 107 witnesses for the defence. 'It will take more than two years for them all to testify,' he says with unconcealed glee. By then the Thai authorities will no longer be able to lay hands on the mass murderer. And even if Sobhraj is found guilty, the maximum sentence he faces is 10 years, which he will have already have completed. 'I expect Charles to go free at the end of all this,' Majumdar says confidently.

Sobhraj is nearly 50, but he is still trim from his daily karate exercises and he is the acknowledged ruler of the Tihar prison yard. He is known as 'Charles-sahib', a term of respect. Prisoners and wardens obey him. He gives money from his mysterious overseas bank accounts to help the children of the poorer prisoners and of the under-paid prison guards. He recently tricked two officials into signing a document admitting that they were shaking down inmates for bribes. The two jailers were sacked.

After the 1986 escape, Sobhraj was swamped by book and film offers. His autobiography, commissioned by a French publisher, is nearly complete. When he is released, he will be a moneyed celebrity. His black hair may be thinning, but his dangerous charm is undimmed. As one prison visitor recalled recently: 'I was talking to the ward superintendent in his office when Sobhraj walked in as if he owned the place. The officer immediately stood up and offered his chair to Charles-sahib.'

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