Till death do us part: serial killer finds love with translator

Invitations have yet to be sent, the wedding band has not been booked. But inside a Nepalese prison cell measuring less than 10ft across, what must qualify as one of the more unlikely of marriages is actively being planned.

The groom-to-be is Charles Sobhraj, a 64-year-old French citizen nicknamed "The Serpent". This convicted, self-confessed killer has been blamed for perhaps as many as 20 deaths, is the subject of several books and a full-length movie, is a veteran of South Asia's jails and is a twice-married womaniser. Now, as he appeals against his conviction by a Kathmandu court, he is planning to marry a Nepalese woman 44 years his junior.

Sobhraj has become engaged to Nihita Biswas, who was hired by his lawyer to work as a translator. She insists it was love at first sight and that neither their age difference or her fiancé's conviction should stand as a bar to their happiness. "We are planning a future after his release. We know he is going to be released soon. We are going to be married under French law in France," Miss Biswas, 20, said at the weekend. "I am mature enough to decide for myself. Age does not make a difference."

It is difficult to know where to begin the twisting and near-incredible story of Charles Sobhraj, who was born to a Vietnamese mother and Indian father in what was then Saigon. He was later adopted by his mother's second husband, a French officer during the colonial occupation. His link with Nepal dates back to December 1975, when he was being pursued for the murder of two backpackers. Remarkably, Nepali police were ordered to wait in the lobby of their suspect's hotel for two days rather than ignore the "Do Not Disturb" sign he had hung from his door. Taking advantage of the police's extraordinary deference to wealthy foreign tourists, Sobhraj and his then Canadian girlfriend, Marie-Andrée Leclerc, escaped. They had already slipped into India by the time officers broke down the door of their hotel room.

While these two killings brought Sobhraj to the attention of the Nepalese authorities, it is alleged that he had already killed a dozen other tourists across southern Asia's hippy trail, including five young people in Thailand. Two women he allegedly drowned there were wearing similar floral-print swimming costumes, earning Sobhraj another nickname of "the bikini killer".

What drove Sobhraj to kill is unclear. But it is obvious that he had a talent for charming young, vulnerable people, especially women. Six months after he fled from Nepal, he was arrested in India along with two female backpackers he had recruited to his "clan" as they sought to drug and rob three other tourists. They were sent to New Delhi's Tihar jail, the biggest prison in southern Asia.

While his two accomplices suffered under the jail's harsh regime, reports suggest that Sobhraj bribed his guards so that he could live a life of relative ease, with decent food and a television set. Having been sentenced to 12 years, he feared that when he was released he would be sent back to Thailand, where he faced almost certain execution if convicted of murder. He therefore hatched a plot to extend his sentence by drugging his guards and walking out of the prison. He was arrested in Goa and returned to Tihar, from which he was eventually freed in 1997.

Sobhraj returned to Paris and became the subject of intense media attention. Several books were written about him and Shadow Of The Cobra, a film based on his life, was made. He appeared to have escaped the arm of the law, the statutes against him having expired. It is claimed that during his life of crime he was wanted in Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Thailand, France, Greece, Turkey and Iran.

When he was asked by his biographer Richard Neville – to whom he confessed at least one killing – why people committed murders, he replied: "Either because they have too much feeling and cannot control themselves, or they have no feelings."

Sobhraj might have lived in Paris and survived off his notoriety had he not decided to return to Nepal in September 2003. He claimed he went back to the Himalayan kingdom as part of a French production team making a television programme about handicrafts. Whatever the truth was, police sprang into action after being alerted by a report in a local newspaper. Officers arrested Sobhraj in the casino of the Yak and Yeti resort in Kathmandu. He was charged with the 1975 murders of the backpackers Connie Joe Bronzich, an American, and Laurent Carriere, a Canadian.

Much of the prosecution evidence at Sobhraj's trial was collected by Herman Knippenberg, a former Dutch diplomat who had began pursuing him since 1975, when he allegedly killed two Dutch students in Thailand. Mr Knippenberg provided testimony from a Bangkok-based journalist who said Sobhraj had drawn him a map of the resort of Pattaya, indicating where he had buried the body of someone he killed.

Sobhraj denounced the evidence against him as faked, but he was convicted in July 2004, to his apparent dismay. "Since my release in 1997 from India, there is no international warrant pending against me from Interpol anywhere," he told one interviewer at the time. "In 1997, the French embassy in Kathmandu enquired in writing with the government of Nepal whether there was a case pending against me here as stated by some newspapers at that time. And the Nepal government never replied to that enquiry from the embassy.

"Had there been a case pending against me here, certainly Nepal would have succeeded in having an international arrest of warrant issued against me."

Sobhraj met his fiancée, Miss Biswas, less than three months ago, after she was hired as a translator by his French lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, who is working on his appeal. Is it possible that Miss Biswas was inspired by the actions of the woman who recruited her? Mme Coutant-Peyre is famous for becoming engaged to one of her clients, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, otherwise known as Carlos the Jackal.

As odd as Sobhraj's engagement might seem, Miss Biswas's mother has apparently given the relationship her blessing and visited her prospective son-in-law at Kathmandu's Central Jail. "My daughter is an adult and whatever decision she makes I will be happy," she has said.

However, she may not approve of the "frolicking" that her daughter – an attractive and articulate college student – and Sobhraj are said to have indulged in at the prison. Indeed, officials have now stepped in to clamp down on the couple's public displays of affection. "We have restricted such acts inside the jail but we have allowed Nihita to bring food for him," said the jail director.

Sobhraj, who once refused to speak to the media unless he was paid, now talks freely of both his love for his bride-to-be and his belief that he will be freed on appeal. Nepal's Supreme Court is hearing his case and could announce its decision as early as this week. "I believe that I will be released soon," he told The Times of India newspaper. "I met [Nihita] just two months ago and now we are in love, and I hope we will marry after I get released."

Reports suggest the couple have already exchanged rings and plan to move to Paris if Sobhraj is released, despite claims that he is still legally wed to a woman he married in France during the 1960s (he claims that another woman with whom he lived after being released from Tihar in 1997 was merely his common-law wife).

Miss Biswas, while thinking of the future, also finds herself trapped in the past of the man she intends to marry. "I don't know what he was, what he is now is important," she said. "He is a good man, I have seen the way he cares for his family. We have a good relationship. He is innocent. There is no evidence against him."

And her boss is engaged to Carlos the Jackal

Charles Sobhraj's French lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, is no stranger to controversy having worked on the defence of Slobodan Milosevic and Klaus Barbie.

But it was her decision in 2001 to become engaged – she insists they are legally married – to Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, best known as Carlos the Jackal, that triggered the most headlines.

Mme Coutant-Peyre met Carlos when she was hired by the lawyer Jacques Vergès, known as the Devil's Advocate, to work on his defence. In her 2004 book, Marrying Carlos: A High-Pressure Love, she wrote of the first time she met him in Le Sante prison in Paris. "He took my hand and kissed it in the most courteous way," she wrote. "At that moment a wave of recognition passed between us."

Carlos was convicted in December 1997 of an attack in 1975 on Opec's headquarters in Vienna, which ended in three deaths and the kidnapping of more than 60 hostages, who were later released. He is serving a life sentence.

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