PARIS (AP) — Convicted killer Charles Sobhraj, suspected in the deaths of at least 20 tourists around Asia in the 1970s, arrived in Paris as a free man Saturday after being released from a life sentence in a Nepal prison.
It was the latest twist in a dramatic life trajectory depicted in a series co-produced by the BBC and Netflix called “The Serpent,″ which aired last year. He has in the past admitted to killing Western tourists around Asia.
“I’m fine, I’m glad” to be in France, he told The Associated Press in a brief phone conversation after arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. “We are going to have lunch.”
Sobhraj, a 78-year-old French citizen, had been serving time for the deaths of American and Canadian backpackers in Nepal in 1975, but was released Friday for health and other reasons.
His French lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, told The AP that Sobhraj will contest his conviction in Nepal, describing him as an “optimist” and resilient after nearly 20 years behind bars.
French filmmaker Jean-Charles Deniau, who escorted Sobhraj out of the Paris airport and is releasing a film and book about his life, said, “He’s doing well. He has medicines. He will live in Paris, and a little bit everywhere.”
The French government did not respond to requests for comment on whether he could face judicial challenges in France. Sobhraj was born in Vietnam during French rule and claims French citizenship.
He is believed to have killed at least 20 people in Afghanistan, India, Thailand, Turkey, Nepal, Iran and Hong Kong between 1972 and 1982.
But despite multiple legal cases opened against him, judicial authorities across the region struggled to convict him for the killings — or to keep him behind bars.
He was arrested in New Delhi in 1976 and accused of murdering two tourists and stealing their jewelry. He was convicted of the theft but acquitted of murder. In Thailand, he faced 14 murder charges. He avoided being extradited by staying before the courts in India until the Thai case expired in 1996. In Thailand, he faced the death penalty.
In 1986, he escaped from New Delhi’s maximum-security Tihar prison after luring guards into sharing a drug-laced birthday cake, but was later recaptured.
In 1997, he was deported from India to France, where he lived freely but was investigated for allegedly trying to poison a group of French tourists in India.
He resurfaced in 2003 in a casino in the Nepalese city of Kathmandu, and was questioned about the unsolved murders of an American and a Canadian backpacker whose charred bodies were found on the city’s outskirts. He was convicted the following year and handed a life sentence.
Sobhraj insisted on his innocence in that case, though had in the past spoken of killing other tourists. When he was released from the Indian prison, he said he regretted aspects of his past.
Life sentences in Nepal are 20 years. In announcing his release this week, the Nepal Supreme Court said he has heart disease, and had already served more than 75% of his sentence and had behaved well in prison, making him eligible for release.
He was freed Friday and ordered to leave Nepal within 15 days. A friend helped finance a ticket to France, and the French Embassy prepared travel documents allowing him to leave, attorney Gopal Siwakoti Chitan said.
His French lawyer welcomed his release. “I’m very happy but very shocked that it took 19 years to obtain his normal freedom,” Coutant-Peyre said at the airport. She said his murder conviction in Nepal was a “fabricated case” and said the French government didn’t do enough to help or defend him.
She said Sobhraj watched the series “The Serpent” and said it was “garbage first of all, and that 70 percent of it is totally false.”
The series notably traces how Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg initiated an international investigation into Sobhraj’s alleged killings.
His “serpent” nickname stems from his reputation as a disguise and escape artist. He was also known as “the bikini killer” because he often targeted young women.