Asia's Charles Manson to walk free after 20 years

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A smooth-talking serial killer who befriended travellers along the 1970s hippie trail, then drugged them and left a trail of bodies across Nepal, Thailand, and India, is about to walk free from New Delhi's Tihar Jail after almost 20 years.

Charles Sobhraj, at 52, still has the lethal charms of an Asian Charles Manson. Even from behind bars, his young female admirers become willing accomplices. In jail, he's had a string of fiancees - mostly foreigners held for dealing drugs. He has pledged to marry a Punjabi girl half his age just two days after his release - which may be this morning (Valentine's Day) or, more likely, on Monday.

Sobhraj, who once boasted to his biographers that he committed 10 murders in 1976 alone, is more cunning now and denies everything. "I regret the past, but don't ask me which part," he told reporters outside a bail hearing this week.

He bungled badly on 5 July 1976, when he drugged a group of 60 French tourists in New Delhi, intending to swipe their passports and cash, but miscalculated the dose. The manager of the Vikram Hotel, aghast when the guests all collapsed in his lobby, summoned the police. Sobhraj also had his collar felt for another memorable felony: he seduced a dancing girl who occupied a strategically placed hotel room, then gagged her and tied her to the bed while he sawed through the floor and looted sacks of gems from the jewellery store directly underneath.

During his years in prison, Sobhraj has poured over law books and considers himself an expert on international extradition. To dodge arrest for the notorious "bikini murders" of five female tourists on Thai beaches, which would have led to almost certain conviction and a death penalty, Sobhraj extended his prison sentence on purpose by masterminding an obvious escape from the high-security Tihar Jail. On his birthday, he gave poisoned sweets to the wardens and just waltzed free, along with a gullible British inmate, David Hall, who he lured into the plot. He then flaunted himself as a high-profile fugitive in Goa until Indian police rearrested him. Absconding charges kept him safely in custody while his lawyer summoned 107 defence witnesses. The gambit worked, and the Thai extradition orders expired this year.

Meanwhile, he has become a new French anti-hero, and not only because he carries a French passport. His earlier escapes from prisons in Rhodes, Bombay, Kabul, and the Greek island of Aegina were quixotic and risky. But Sobhraj never swaggers, even though he basks in media attention and would frequently telephone reporters from his cell. His voice is soft and disarming."The man sucks curiosity out of you,"a prison warden said. He even managed to win over the Prison Inspector General, Kiran Bedi, who was dismissed early from her post partly because she'd granted Sobhraj too many special privileges.

Recently, he sold a Paris production company the film rights to his life story for over $16m (pounds 10m). Once he picks up his new passport, he will be free to roam again. He is still handsome with exotic features. You have been warned.

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