Kathmandu: He was told unequivocally that he would have to spend more than 10 years behind bars and his fiancée and "mother-in-law" face the prospect of being sent to prison. However, Charles Sobhraj, the angry recipient of the moniker "Bikini Killer", still has good reason to be upbeat. The UN has just given him a clean chit, supporting his contention that he did not get a fair trial in Nepal, and asking the government not just to release him but to pay compensation as well.
Following the UN endorsement, the 66-year-old is anticipating tougher action by the French government to secure his release from Kathmandu’s Central Jail. His soaring imagination also considers the possibility of the UN slapping sanctions on Nepal to make the government obey.
The new twist in Sobhraj’s seven-year Nepal saga came on Wednesday after the Human Rights Committee (HRC) of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights forwarded an 11-page document to his French lawyer in Paris, informing her of the decisions it took during its 99th session in Geneva held between July 12-30. The HRC took up Sobhraj’s case after his lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, registered a successful complaint in November 2008, accusing the Nepal authorities of ordering her client’s arrest and detention arbitrarily and sentencing him to life imprisonment following an unfair trial.
Incidentally, Sobhraj’s lawyer in Nepal, Shakuntala Thapa, and his Nepali fiancée Nihita Biswas are currently facing contempt of court proceedings for making almost same charges.
There are three things the HRC has highlighted: that Sobhraj was detained for 25 days without being allowed to consult a lawyer, that the trial in three courts were in Nepali though he does not follow Nepali and the state did not allow an interpreter, and finally, the prosecutors demanding that he prove his innocence when they could not prove him guilty of the murder of American backpacker Connie Jo Bronzich in Kathmandu 1975.
In the UN document shared with TNN by Coutant-Peyre, the HRC said it considered Sobhraj’s lack of access to an interpreter and lawyer violated the right to defence, principles of fairness and equality in criminal proceedings. Sobhraj had said that he was sentenced on the basis of media reports that dwelled on unfounded allegations of murders committed outside Nepal with police unable to provide a single evidence or witness that he was in Nepal in 1975.
"The committee insists that a criminal court may convict a person only when there is no reasonable doubt of his guilt," the UN statement says. "And it is for the prosecution to dispel such doubt. In the present case, both the district court and Patan appellate court have shifted the burden of proof to the detriment of the [accused], thereby violating the Covenant (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Nepal signed in 1996)."
The UN has also flayed Nepal for the long delay in the trial – that ran from 2003 to Aug 2010 -- punctuated with frequent delays and postponements: "The committee considers domestic remedies have been unnecessarily prolonged... (From) March 26, 2006 – 23 April 2010, 41 hearings scheduled. Most hearings were cancelled or postponed at the last minute without reasons being provided. The length of proceedings and high number of postponements and cancellations can’t be justified."
The HRC has also come down heavily on the Supreme Court for making an appellate court review the dismissal of an incredible fake passport case. Police claimed Sobhraj came to Nepal in 1975 using the tampered passport of a Dutch tourist in Bangkok, Henricus Bintanja. The Patan appellate court subsequently found him guilty of violating the Immigration Act and slapped him with a fine and one-year jail term that was upheld by Nepal’s Supreme Court last Friday. However, in 1975, there was no immigration act. It came into being only in 1992 and as per law, an act cannot be applied retrospectively.
The HRC has now given Nepal`s government 180 days to provide Sobhraj with "an effective remedy, including the speedy conclusion of the proceedings and compensation."
Though the UN ruling spruces up Sobhraj’s tarnished image, it is however doubtful whether Nepal will heed it, though it agreed to abide by the Covenant. In 2003, when the Hindu kingdom’s image was at an all-time low, thanks to the Maoist insurgency and growing human right violations, the sensational Sobhraj arrest made Nepal Police gain stature in the eye of the world. Releasing him now would be tantamount to admitting their inefficiency as well as readiness to fake documents and mislead the court.