By Richard Neville & Julie Clarke
(Jonathan Cape, UK, 1979)
19 September 2003: Nepalese police have arrested French serial murder suspect
Charles Sobhraj in connection with the killing of two young tourists in Nepal nearly 30
years ago. He was arrested in the Royal casino, Kathmandu. Sobhraj, 59, a
Vietnamese-Indian by birth, is suspected of involvement in up to 20 murders in a number
of countries across Asia in the 1970s. However, despite all the allegations against him,
Sobhraj has never been convicted of murder.
25 September 03: Notorious international killer Charles Sobhraj, being held in a
Kathmandu prison on murder charges, has been provided with a foam pillow, a bed,
meals from a local restaurant and mineral water, a police official said Thursday. He is
also being kept in a special room rather than a cell, the official told AFP on condition of
anonymity. "We have allowed Charles to use the officers' toilet", he added.
While in the Indian jail, he confessed to Australian writer Richard Neville that he had
carried out seven more "cleanings" „ murders „ of young backpackers during 1975
and 1976. Police in Thailand, India and Nepal believe he killed at least 14 people. AFP
Sobhraj with Neville in Delhi, 1977
Late on a hot afternoon in Paris in July 1976, a middle-aged man in a crumpled
suit walked from his office and into the rush-hour crowds. He wore horn-rimmed
glasses and a distracted air. His hair was tousled and he carried a battered
briefcase. Alain Benard had been a corporate executive for fifteen years but
looked more like a classics professor.
The posters advertised suntan lotions. Blow-ups of bronzed girls in bikinis
beamed down on Benard as he jostled his way towards the Metro. It was nearing
the time of year when millions of Parisians would leave the city for their annual
Benard sidestepped an old man bent over a pile of magazines; he was
cutting the twine from the bundle and stacking the copies of Paris Match on the
racks of the news-stand. Alain Benard's eyes followed the bright red cover and
he froze, DEATH RIDES THE ROAD TO KATMANDU, it said, but it was the dark
eyes glowering from the familiar face that stopped Benard in his tracks.
arrogant face, but handsome. It was Charles Sobhraj. There was no mistake.
Benard bought a copy of the magazine and sat down at a pavement caf?.
`All over the world police search for these brutal killers,' read the photo caption.
`They slay young hitchhikers on the holiday road, so far -- a dozen victims!'
Charles was pictured in a pose Benard knew well. One hand was on his hip and
the other on a table scattered with dollars, his fingers curled backwards as
though made of rubber. Next to Charles, in the picture, was a dark-haired young
woman wearing sunglasses and leaning forward in a low-cut T-shirt. She looked
more attractive than Benard remembered her. He opened the magazine and his
eye was caught by a lurid comic strip. It showed his friend Charles enticing some
holidaymakers to a palm-fringed beach. His girlfriend stands against the tropical
moon, holding up a syringe. Next, two bodies are pictured lying on the sand as
Charles bends over one of them, robbing
it. His girlfriend kneels next to the body of a man in shorts.
This body is burning and the woman smiles as flames soar into the air. In the last
frame, the young couple peer demoniacally from the page as smoke billows
Benard felt sick, and told himself it was impossible, absurd. He turned the page and found a photograph of a girl in a bikini, her arms outstretched and her eyes closed. `An 18year-old American found dead in Pattaya,' the caption read, `probably a victim of the diabolic trio.' Almost against his will, his eyes skimmed the story: charred corpses in Katmandu covered with stab wounds, throats cut, necks broken, druggings and drownings, teenagers burned alive in Bangkok ... All the work of a mysterious 'Alain Gautier', now one of the most wanted men in the world.
Could Charles really have committed those crimes? Benard paid for his
coffee and walked toward the M?tro. He felt overcome by despair. Whatever
Charles might have done, Benard was certain that his gifted young friend could
not have wanted such things to happen. Charles had been born under a bad star,
Alain Benard accepted it as a mystery - how his own life, the life of an orderly
and respectable businessman had become intertwined with that of an incorrigible
criminal whose career was sending the world's press into paroxysms of grisly
description. This friendship had begun in the normal course of events - perhaps it
had begun because the events of Benard's life were all too normal.
Ten years earlier, Alain Benard was taking a Sunday afternoon stroll through the
park near his home. He was 38 then, prosperous, unmarried, and bored. Primly
dressed children were sailing their boats in the pond, sedate couples were
playing tennis, and horses passed by at a leisurely trot down the leaf-covered
path. The air was sweet with the smell of freshly cut grass and suddenly the ease
of his cultivated life seemed sterile and cloying. The thought crossed his mind
that everyone lived in their own ghetto and that he, Alain Benard, was a man
trapped in a ghetto of privilege.
Above the swaying green of the poplars he noticed, not for the first time, the high
grey watchtowers of Poissy Jail. Behind those walls, he realized, lived those for
whom there could be no fastidious savouring of doubts in a Sunday stroll.
Many years ago Alain Benard's father, a commodities broker, had been a
volunteer prison visitor in Marseilles. On that Sunday afternoon in July 1966
Benard decided to follow his father's example. It would be a fair exchange. He
could use his legal training to help others and he would gain a passport to
another milieu. The next day Benard applied to become an official prison visitor
at Poissy Jail.
At first his part-time duties were simple: he advised Yugoslav construction
workers who had overstayed their visas; he patched up domestic affairs for
Corsican burglars; and on some weekends he would visit as many as fifteen
inmates, who were happy just to have someone to talk to.
Then the prison priest approached him about a special case. `I thought of you,
Benard, because this case needs an intellectual with a lot of patience. It's a
young boy, very bright, in fact exceptionally so, and a rebel. He seems to live in a
world of his own and refuses to come to terms with reality. But if he had a friend
to connect with him, and help him, I'm sure he could go a long way. Are you
He was. Now that he was used to visiting the jail, he welcomed a
challenge. So on a wet October afternoon in 1966 the iron gates swung open and
Benard looking, as usual, slightly dishevelled and distracted in spite of his
soberly correct attire, waited for the guards to examine his pass and unlock the
second set of doors. He stood patiently, his hands in his pockets, with no great
He followed a grey-haired social worker into the reception area. `I suggest that if
you agree to accept this case, Mr Benard,' she said, lowering her voice, `you
should do so only on one condition, a condition that we would ask you to regard
as inviolable. But that can wait. Five months ago Charles broke out of Hagineau.
Did you read about it?'
Benard nodded. Last May three prisoners from the psychiatric jail had
jumped over the wall after knocking out a guard and tying him to a radiator with
adhesive tape. `They caught him and transferred him here,' she said, striding
along the grey cement corridor. `It was a self-destructive act. Another month in
Hagineau and he probably would have got parole. Now he refuses to work and
will have nothing to do with his cellmates. He wrote to the warden here accusing
him of degrading the prisoners and then he went on a hunger strike for forty-five
She opened the door into the empty visitor's room. Benard was
accustomed to the place now, with its ugly green linoleum. `Don't let me give you
the impression that it is a hopeless case,' she continued as they sat down. `As
you must have gathered by now, it is our belief that there is no such thing as a
hopeless case. No case is lost! And the fact that Charles is so young and his
crimes relatively trifling, well, this is reason to hope.'
`And his background? What do we know?'
`He was born in Saigon to a Vietnamese mother, but his father is Indian. His
stepfather is French, an army man.' She paused. `So Charles is not technically
Eurasian although he has some of the same problems.'
Benard sat silently, polishing his glasses. She did not need to elaborate. The
growing number of Eurasians in France had popularized certain beliefs: their
pride quickly degenerated into arrogance; they disdained manual labour in case it
betrayed peasant origins; they were simultaneously attracted to and repelled by
things French; they nursed minor injuries and humiliations into a lethal hunger for
revenge; they revered intrigue more than courage because they believed it was
more effective; and, finally, that due to a neurotic focusing of their energies, the
Eurasians' intellectual level was invariably high.
`One of the fruits of our war come back to haunt us,' the woman said suddenly,
as if reading his mind.
Although it was twelve years since the French army had been routed by the Viet
Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Benard was well aware of the consequences
of his country's foreign policy in Indochina, where almost 8o,ooo French soldiers
had died. The Vietnam war, some people believed, had begun in Paris in 1858
when the politicians first ordered gunboats to sail up the Saigon River and
establish a garrison. For ninety-two years the French had profited from the
country's raw materials - raising revenue to administer the colony by
monopolizing opium sales to the Vietnamese.
`You never told me that one inviolable condition,' Benard reminded the social
`Well, it's this, Mr Benard. If you decide you want to help him, you would have to
stay his friend throughout.'
`Throughout his life. Up to now, from what we can discover, he's been shunted
back and forth between parents and continents. It's made it hard for him to form
attachments. On top of that, he had to live through the war. If you come into this
boy's life as a friend and then disappear when it suits you, it would be much
worse than doing nothing. He needs a strong father figure. Firm, not judgmental.
Everyone else has judged him, this whole system,' she said, encompassing in a
gesture of impatience the small barred windows, the fluorescent light, the
ubiquitous ugliness. `He needs just one person to stand by him.'
They heard the harsh voices of the guards herding prisoners along the corridor to
the visiting rooms and the social worker got up to leave. `It's better if he meets
you alone,' she said, `as an individual. We'll talk again later. Good luck.' The
prisoners were locked into a long cell adjoining the visiting rooms. Benard
passed the guard the slip of paper authorizing an interview with the prisoner,
The twenty-two-year-old who swaggered into the room was of medium
height, slim but muscular, and strikingly handsome. He had high cheekbones and
the black eyes in his sallow face seemed to notice and analyse Benard's every
physical detail. He shook hands and sat down, facing Benard across the desk
with a quizzical smile that made the older man feel that it was he who was being
received. For a moment, Benard was disconcerted.
`So, Charles, you've had some bad luck in life?'
`I'd call it bad justice,' he said. His voice was intimate, rich, and low.
`It must always seem that way inside a place like this.'
`I've already learned to live above external circumstances in life,' the boy said,
leaning back against the chair with his arms folded, staring.
`That's a stoical attitude,' said Benard, intrigued by the young man's intensity.
`Yes, the Stoics are my favourites, actually. Their ideas are much more useful in
my situation than those of the priests.'
`From my understanding of the Stoics,' Benard replied, `they teach the
importance of mastering desires, but you're here because you succumbed to
`I stole out of necessity,' Charles said. `The authorities had ordered me out of
France, and I had no money. So, to drive across the border, I stole a car.' It was
said with such selfassurance that the action sounded reasonable.
`But if you admit the crime, where's the injustice?' asked Benard.
`Copping four years for trying to obey an order to leave France.'
`You could have worked for the fare, perhaps?' suggested the older man with a
`Without proper papers? I tried that. Peeling potatoes for four francs an hour.'
`What about your family?'
`I went to Marseilles to ask my mother for help. She just ignored me. She was too
busy with her new boyfriend, a colonel. In the end she gave me forty francs.
Forty francs to leave France!'
`So you don't get along with your mother?'
`For me, my mother is dead. I have cut her out of my life. I
expect nothing from her.'
`In that case, where will you go when you leave here,
Charles? What are your plans?' `To get back to my country.' `Vietnam?'
`Yes. My mother took me away when I was nine to this wonderful country where
I'm treated like shit. You know, Mr Benard, last time I was in Saigon I was
drafted. I'd still rather go back and fight than stay here.'
`So you're Vietnamese?'
`Officially, no, but Air Vice-Marshal Ky needs every man he can get, don't you
think? I have no nationality. My father was born in Bombay, but the Indians
refused to give me a passport. Anyway, as the Stoics say, it is better to be a
citizen of the world than of Rome. And when I get out of jail I will be kicked out of
France because I don't have a passport.'
`So it's because of all this indignation that you've got into trouble with the
`No. It's because they won't leave me alone to study. They stick me in this hole,
so, at least, I should make the best of it. I try to deepen myself. Every day, you
know, I exercise - because however the circumstances change, my body is al-
ways with me. Sometimes they put me in solitary which, of course, I don't mind.
They cut off tobacco. So what? I don't smoke. They ban me from the cinema. I
haven't seen a film for nine months.' This list of adversities seemed rather to
`Is such self-discipline a Vietnamese trait?' Benard asked, polishing his glasses.
`It's not French,' Charles said with a chilly smile.
There was an impatient rattle of keys.
`It's a very interesting problem, a man without a nationality. I might look into it.'
`You're under no obligation to do anything for me,' the boy said, `and you know,
Alain, maybe you're a prisoner too - of your own guilt. Why else would you hang
Benard was amused by the boy's sophistry. `Convicted prisoners are driven by
unconscious forces, too, especially ones who keep coming back.'
`Yes. Clack! Clack! Clack! Since I was eighteen. This is my third French jail.'
The two men stood up as the guard opened the door.
Benard said, `I'll see you again next week - we'll have more time to talk.'
`Please yourself, but remember that I'm used to being lonely, Mr Benard.' He
lowered his voice dramatically, `As lonely as the bears in the mountains, and that
is how I shall always be.'
How unlikely, Benard thought, the boy has a talent for winning friendship. He had
never come across such conspicuous personal magnetism. `Is there anything I
can bring you?'
`I need nothing,' the prisoner called over his shoulder as he was led away,
In the weeks that followed Benard visited Charles Sobhraj every Saturday
afternoon and picked over his library to feed the prisoner's ravenous appetite for
psychology, philosophy, law, and executive training manuals. Sometimes he
boasted to Benard that he sat at his desk in the cell for nineteen hours a day,
poring through books. He hardly noticed the other prisoners.
He sought not only self-improvement, but an intellectual armoury - he wanted the
weapons, conventional and otherwise, to cut through the jungle outside, to carve
his path to the top. Socially Charles was on the bottom rung, without wealth,
nationality or education, and jail had added a fiveyear handicap. But he had
inherited one gift, the gift of charisma, of power over people. Charles decided to
build on this and to learn all he could about clues to their character; the better, he
thought, one day to mould them to his will. Palmistry, handwriting analysis and
characterology would help him penetrate other minds and would offer short cuts
in social relations.
As his friendship with Benard grew, so did Charles's requests. Benard was
relieved when the boy who wanted only books also admitted to simpler human
needs for chocolate toffees, stationery, and socks.
By the time summer was fading the young Vietnamese prisoner had become a
permanent fixture in Benard's ordered life. Every Saturday afternoon Benard
would visit Charles, just as every Sunday evening he would visit his own mother,
and in his spare time during the week he began to investigate the peculiar
problem of finding a nationality for Charles. Each Saturday he would explain how
his research had gone during the preceding week. He wanted to show the boy,
who was still cynical about his visitor's motives, that he was taking the case
'I found out about the Stateless Person's Passport from the U.N. You aren't
eligible. There's a rule that you can't apply for one from the country in which you
'To be officially Stateless, you have first to be sinless?' Charles commented.
'Apparently, but then perhaps it's for the best. After all, you're entitled to a
nationality, and I've written to the Indian Embassy.'
'They will say no, too,' Charles said. 'Each country will close its doors.'
'In that case I need to be armed for the fight. I must know more about your past:
documents, dates, where you were brought up. Can I write to your family?'
Charles was silent for a minute, affecting the faintly melodramatic gesture of
someone thinking deeply that Benard,. was becoming used to. ' I prefer not to
look back,' he said, 'but':, you can write to my stepfather Roussel in Marseilles
you won't get much sense out of him. He's doped up on tranquillizers.'
`Can I write to your mother then?'
'No. She no longer exists for me.'
Benard argued with him without result and then suggested he should write to
Charles's father in Saigon. This triggered an impassioned diatribe:
`Before I met you, Alain, I must tell you that I was often close to suicide in my
cell. I stopped eating. I couldn't sleep. I was always depressed. That's why they
transferred me to Hagineau. After many nights without sleep, I asked myself,
"Why die now? Go to the source of your misfortune and see who's responsible." I
did, and it was my father, Sobhraj. And you know something, Alain? With this
idea, I felt better. I swore to myself for the future to have a new life, a pure life,
and overall, overall, to have revenge on my father. That's when I wrote to him this
It was Charles's habit to bring a sheaf of papers to the visitor's room, usually with
lists of books or a scribbled page of introspection or poetry. He handed Benard
the letter he had written.
It is really unfortunate that you are my father. Why so? Because a father has a
duty to help his son build a future. You pray to God at the temple, but your
conscience is heavy. You bore a son, but you ignore him. You abandon him
worse than a dog, worse than for the lowest beast!!! From you I will carry only the
name you gave me. The faithful love I had for you, I have still, unfortunately. But I
will fight it. You are no more my father. I disown you. Live in your abundance,
enjoy it as much as you can. For myself, I have as my only treasure, bread and
water. But it's precious treasure because it fortifies me every day and gives me
the strength and will to hold me on only one target.
I will consume you. I will make you suffer. I will make you regret that you have
missed your father's duty. The fortune, I will get without you. And I will use it to
When Benard put the letter down Charles said, 'There's a poem I wrote with it.
It's very short.' He recited it:
In the sunny country where you walk My abandoned self could also go If my body
had wings to fly Like my spirit has.
`That almost makes up for the letter,' Benard said. `Don't you think a life based
on revenge is self-defeating?' Benard's calm question did not betray how
shocked he was by the
attitude revealed in the letter.
`Maybe it's my Asian mind that makes it difficult to accept Christian forgiveness,'
Charles said, `for when a man has wronged you...'
`And you become obsessed with revenge,' Benard said quickly, `then you still let
him get the upper hand. You allow him to deform your psychology.'
Charles paused and looked up. `Okay, I agree. You can write to my father. Don't
say anything about where I am now. He is very conventional, a rich
businessman. And you should use the company's letterhead when you write, that
will impress him.'
Benard left the room feeling that he had made a break
In the courtyard of Poissy jail three prisoners were decorating a Christmas tree
with the help of the social worker when Benard made his next visit, carrying a
present for Charles.
`So, you've taken the case to heart?' she called out, coming towards him.
`Even to my head,' he said, taking a worn sheet of paper from his wallet. `Do you
want to see the first letter I received from Charles?' Benard handed her the letter:
I am a being who has cried out, `O Lord, my God, why have you made me what I
am? You know, O Lord, that I only ask to love, to live. Why don't you grant this?
In order to prepare me for my destiny? But what is my destiny, O my Lord? Tell
me, give me a signal. Why was I born a being that the whole world despises, one
who could die without anyone shedding a tear? O Lord, I
have had only misfortune. Send me some happiness. You, who know the secret
of my soul, guide me, tell me what must be done. I don't know anymore what to
do.' For a long time, nothing, there was no answer. Then I knew he had heard my
cry, Alain, the scream of a drowning man. He sent you.
`You have got yourself in deep,' she said, returning the letter.
`Yes. I wasn't prepared for this. At least he's no longer bitter and suicidal. Who
knows how it will end?' Benard turned and walked down the grey corridor.
In the visitors' room a few minutes later Charles unwrapped his presents -- two
drawings of Jesus and one of St John. 'Alain, I will have these framed,' he said.
`What can I give in return? All I can offer you is my brotherhood, but, I promise,
that will be deep and eternal.'
Benard, who was embarrassed but touched by this declaration, told him that the
Indian Embassy had turned down the request for nationality. `They say you have
not lived there long enough.'
`Who wants to be Indian?' Charles asked. `Did you hear from my father?'
`Yes, he was glad to hear news of you.'
`Next time you write, Alain, could you ask him to send me some suits? You know,
he's a tailor.'
`Yes, and his letter was very warm towards you.'
`Even if he hasn't given me the love of a father, I suppose I must try to give him
the love of a son. I do believe in Providence, Alain. And one thing about prayer,
it's great to have someone to talk to, especially the Creator.'
`You already seem to be on intimate terms with Him.'
`What a waste my years in jail have been,' he went on, not noticing Benard's
remark, `and if I hadn't met you I would have lost myself in action on the outside.
To what good? Now I want to make up for those lost years. The warden has
given me permission to study a course in law at the University of Paris. Can you
get all the enrolment forms and textbooks for me?'
`Of course, Charles. It's good that you're looking ahead to
the day you come out, but we still have to sort out your nationality, and your
mother has all the papers. You must let me see her.'
Charles looked away and said nothing. Benard kept pushing, tactfully and firmly.
He could see there were tears in Charles's eyes when he finally answered, `All
right, Alain, if you think it is for the best. You have my permission.'
END OF CHAPTER 1.