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When Charles Sobhraj Walked Into My Office

The convicted murderer, now in Nepal, had some fanciful stories to tell about his life.

In a recently republished interview from the New Zealand Listener on the website Noted, Charles Sobhraj – who is serving a life sentence for multiple murders in Kathmandu jail – says that he risked going back to Nepal, some two decades or more after the murders for which he was convicted, only because he was working for the CIA.

His ostensible reason for venturing into Nepal with a false passport and French identity was to broker a deal between the Taliban, the Triads of Paris and the arms-dealing company in which he was a partner. The deal was never concluded. It was scheduled to happen in 48 hours, but the central party, the Triad mafia of Paris, didn’t turn up. Charles spent his time waiting for them playing blackjack in a casino. The official story goes that a policeman who had investigated the murders in previous decades recognised him, arrested him and that led to his conviction and the sentence of life imprisonment.

Why didn’t the Triads turn up and close the deal? Why does Charles after all these years inside, claim that he was working clandestinely for the right honourable CIA? Was he? The amazing and perhaps incredible fact is that I can testify that this may have well been the truth – and that he was betrayed by an agency that is not known for honourable, moral and humanitarian purpose and activity. The Agency undoubtedly has the noble aim of keeping the US safe and it does it, to borrow a phrase from Malcolm X – who may not have been its greatest supporter – “by any means necessary”.

I am not purporting or pretending, gentle reader, to tell an absolute truth, but merely to recount some encounters with Charles Sobhraj and allow you to judge for yourself. Possibility is all—and alluring?

Charles Sobhraj. Photo: PTI

My encounter with Charles

I was working as a commissioning editor at UK’s Channel 4 TV in 1997, when my secretary said “Dolly (it’s what she called me but that’s another story), there’s a feller called Charles Sobhraj who’s called a couple of times and said you’d want to speak to him. I kinda put him off, but he’s on the line now…”

“Put him through,” I said.

The voice at the other end in a French accent said, “Monsieur Dhondy, my name is Charles Sobhraj, you might have heard of me?”

“You’re the serial killer,” I said, which was the first thing that came to mind.

“You could put it that way,” he replied quite coolly.

He said his cousin had been in college with me in Poona (now Pune) and had said I was the person in Europe who could get the jail memoirs he had written published.

Sitting in a TV office, I immediately thought I could possibly get an exclusive story out of this and asked him if he was still in jail. He said, “That’s all over, I am in Paris and can come to London now!”

He turned up the next day with the manuscript of his memoirs and I told him that his best bet was getting a literary agent. I introduced him to the one I thought wouldn’t baulk at representing a murderer’s memoirs and fixed a meeting between them.

A week later, the agent told me that the ‘book’ was unreadable, in dubious English and was a long boast, without a single hint of his having committed any crime, though he had spent 25 years in Tihar jail in Delhi.

Farrukh Dhondy
The Bikini Murders
Harpercollins (June 2008)

My acquaintanceship with Charles proceeded as I fished around for any revelations he might offer. He introduced me to a Parisian Chinese girlfriend whom he used to bring to London and with whom he had an infant daughter. That relationship must have been suspended when his first wife Chantal – who had been on several adventures with him before he was jailed in Tihar – returned from the US. She abandoned her American husband and the daughter she had with him to return to Charles, whom she said was the love of her life. That may have caused a vengeful animosity or resolve in the Chinese woman, as Chantal talked to me about remarrying Charles and living together happily ever after.

Why did I maintain the connection? I suppose because writers follow what they are intrigued by and the motive for and execution of serial murders in several countries were, I thought, worth pursuing and exploring in prose or on screen.

A full account of my acquaintance with Charles and Chantal would fill a whole book – and it has. At first, with his approval, I wrote a screenplay about his life and crimes. It was never produced. After he was jailed, I wrote a semi-fictional account based on his life, a novel called The Bikini Murders which was published and drew a lot of attention.

Absurd demands

Before the book was published, Charles got in touch with me saying he was with some friends in London and needed to urgently meet me. I met him one early morning at a seedy inn on the motorway to London. He wanted me, with my British passport and bank account, to take a lease on any London shop premises from which he and his associates would seemingly sell antique European furniture. Offering me a huge sum of money, Charles confided that the antique business would be a front for an arms and weaponry trade. He said his off-shore firm trading from San Marino was buying weapons from ex-Soviet country dumps and selling them to organisations such as the Taliban. I said I couldn’t get involved and didn’t.

The next demand Charles made on me was weirder, but by then, I was accustomed to the way his mind worked. He called me to ask if I knew anyone in the CIA. I almost said, “How the f*#k would I know anyone in the CIA?”, it occurred to me that my colleague at Channel 4, John Ranelagh, had written an extensive history of the CIA and he would undoubtedly know several people in the agency. I called John, who seemed excited to meet Sobhraj, of whom he’d heard and read, so I told Charles I could indeed put him in touch with the Agency. I did.

Charles came to London and we drove to Grantchester, where John lived. He and Charles talked out of my earshot. On the way back to London, Charles said he was thankful; things would work out.

I don’t remember whether it was Charles or Chantal who told me that the grand plan was that Charles would hand information about his terrorist and arms-dealing connections to the CIA, in exchange for American citizenship for him and a partner, a change of identity and a pension for life. Well, good luck, was all I could think.

Also Read: Charles Sobhraj – Fixing the Heart of a Heartless Man

Some months later, Charles called me from Paris and asked, “Fa—ook, what is wed mercuwy?” He was aware that I had a couple of degrees in physics and could perhaps tell him what red mercury was. I told him it was an antimony-based concoction which the Russians claimed could act as a nuclear trigger. This claim had been disputed by some scientists and supported by others.

I forgot about his call until the Iraq war broke out. I called Charles and Chantal to ask why he had been interested in red mercury. He said he had been approached by some Arabs and had gone to Bahrain to meet them and do a deal to sell them some. He didn’t say whether he had delivered on the deal.

“Could your customers have been Iraqis?” I asked.

“How do I know? But I have taped the conversations and have e-mails from them about the deal.”

Bombshell! The world was saying that Bush and Blair had concocted evidence of Saddam having Weapons of Mass Destruction to justify their war, when in fact none had been found through it. If indeed Charles’ customers who had expressed an interest in buying a nuclear trigger were Iraqis, Charles was sitting on an international news story. Much though I regretted proving that Bush and Blair could have had some justification for their ill-considered war, I called Charles and asked him to come to London and bring the proof of his transactions with him.

I called Peter Oborne, a writer for the right-wing weekly, The Spectator, and arranged for Charles to meet with the then editor, one Boris Johnson. Charles and I met Boris at Peter’s place in Highbury for breakfast the next day.

Boris, after hearing Charles out, said the story was too big for a weekly such as The Spectator. He said he’d call in a prestigious current affairs writer from the Daily Telegraph. He did, and a gentleman whose name I only remember as ‘Mike’ arrived enthusiastically to hear the story. I had things to do and left them to it.

In the evening, Mike called me to say that Sobhraj was demanding an extraordinary amount of money to even show them the evidence of the e-mails and recordings and his newspaper wasn’t legally entitled to buy stories. I said that had nothing to do with me and I didn’t want to be an intermediary.

Charles Sobhraj leaves the Kathmandu district court after his hearing. Photo: Reuters.

Enter the Taliban

Charles called soon after, saying the Telegraph was offering him a measly sum which he couldn’t accept and, anyway, he had urgent business in Nepal.

The business, as I learned later, was that the Taliban, who had a huge supply of Afghan heroin had no Western outlet to earn money from it; in any case, it couldn’t be seen, as a proclaimed Islamicist militancy, selling drugs. Charles would arrange for them to sell truckloads of heroin through the Triads, who would then give him the money which would pay for the weaponry his firm would supply to the Taliban.

Perhaps Charles was playing a double game. He would seal the deal in Kathmandu and slip the word to the CIA and secure his change of life and US citizenship. Was this what he was saying when he said he was working for the CIA, who couldn’t or didn’t acknowledge him and left him to Nepalese justice?

Another possibility is that someone in Paris – a vengeful mistress perhaps – discovered the plan and spilt the beans about the possible betrayal to the CIA to the Triads, who didn’t get to Kathmandu. It is possible then that the CIA, embarrassed by the failure of the clandestine plot, tipped off the Nepalese authorities that their failed informant should now be safely incarcerated.

The court case resulted in his conviction and life imprisonment, though there was scant evidence against him of murder. There was no forensic or circumstantial evidence extant, though the policemen who had investigated the murders at the time told a convincing story. Nevertheless, he was sent down for life.

Was that what Charles was saying when he talked about being betrayed? Did the CIA sacrifice their serial killer operative in order to dissociate themselves from his escapades? Could it be true?

Or did he recently formulate the idea after reading The Bikini Murders – in which I, a writer of fiction, outlined just such a ‘reality’?

Farrukh Dhondy is a novelist and script writer.