Cloistered in Kathmandu's Central Jail is Charles Sobhraj, allegedly one of the 20th century's most notorious serial killers. And yet he has never been convicted of murder. After 28 years, Sobhraj resurfaced in Nepal, the scene of some of his alleged homicides, and police promptly charged him. 'The charges are rubbish,' says Sobhraj. 'I am a busy man with my own film production company in Paris. I came here to make a TV documentary on local handicrafts and also to see if I can do some humanitarian work here to help children.' Every day a queue of journalists, criminal researchers and the curious line up seeking an attendance with Sobhraj - if he so wishes. They wait for hours, together with wardens carrying British-made first world war firearms, and the odd chicken or goat that may wander into the prison. Nicknamed 'the serpent' for his skill in slipping through the clutches of police, and his alleged predilection for venomous cocktails of lethal drugs used to overcome his victims, Sobhraj once told biographer Richard Neville in 1979: 'As long as I can talk to people, I can manipulate them.' Some writers who have followed the case credit the infamous French national and legendary charmer with 32 killings. Meeting the serpent in the flesh, one expects a man with a sinister aura, exuding a devil's charm that equates with the tales of deadly seduction. But the man who appears in the visiting room looks more like an old vagabond surviving on monthly welfare checks. At 59, Sobhraj has lost the handsome appeal that reputedly ensnared scores of women. His age is etched on bony, sunken features and the haggard face is wrinkled like dried fruit. A hole in his tattered hat reveals a balding pate and his shabby coat is too large for him despite his tall frame. The visiting room is crowded with families visiting convicts. Sobhraj, squashed into a corner, leans close to the screen and is forced to raise his voice to be heard. He keeps his voice even, polite, and assured. His brown eyes never falter as he talks: 'I have never been in Nepal before. The police have no evidence against me. My visa is valid. In fact, the Nepali embassy in France issued it to me, without any problems.' At this, a hint of arrogance creeps into his voice: 'How is it that the Nepali embassy could deliver me a visa without knowing I was a suspected murderer? You know, nobody else would dare to use such a famous name.' He grins. But when pressed for more information about his life, Sobhraj's eyes narrow and he displays annoyance, arrogance. He whips out a newspaper clipping, meticulously folded, and taps it impatiently against the screen. 'Don't waste my time. Everyone knows my life! I'm famous. Read the newspaper and do your research first. After that, we'll talk,' he hisses. He has not raised his voice, but the wardens who have been eavesdropping cringe. Sobhraj's life is riddled with strange twists. Born in Saigon in 1944, of unwed Vietnamese-Indian parents, Sobhraj spent most of his childhood shuttling between Asia and Europe. His run-ins with the law started in his teens, when he was held in French detention centres for theft. In his 20s, Sobhraj followed the trail of hippies who headed to Asia. But he was not seeking enlightenment or a high time on hashish. From Iran to Hong Kong, police hunted him for scams and, above all, murder. Sobhraj apparently first met Dutch couple Henricus Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker, who were backpacking across Southeast Asia, in Hong Kong in mid-1975. He allegedly introduced himself as gem dealer Alain Dupuis, one of his many aliases, and invited them to his 'luxurious apartment' in Bangkok, where they died. In October 1975, a series of grisly homicides known as the 'bikini murders' hit the headlines in Thailand. First, the body of Jennifer Bolliver, a Californian, washed up on a beach in Pattaya. More bodies soon tuned up: Vitali Hakim, a Turkish hippie; Charmayne Carrou, his French girlfriend; and Teresa Knowlton, another Californian. All the corpses wore swimsuits. In December, Hemker and Bintanja were found dead in a ditch. They had been strangled and set alight. Before Interpol could link Sobhraj to these deaths, he fled the country. At least 20 murders have been linked to him, many of them confessed to in previous biographies, although he now denies the confessions. From Turkey to Thailand, Sobhraj, who speaks eight languages, conned travellers and allegedly killed the ones who found him out. Victims were stabbed, strangled and, sometimes, burned alive. 'The police say they seized Bintanja's nylon money bags when they stormed the Soaltee Hotel room [in Bangkok] in 1975, allegedly to arrest me. Yet they are unable to present a recovery memo for this so-called evidence. So, what can they use against me? Again, they have nothing,' he said. Despite the accusations, Sobhraj has been convicted only once, in 1978. A Delhi court sentenced him to 10 years' in jail for drugging and trying to rob a group of French engineers travelling in India. He was acquitted of the murders of two other backpackers. While imprisoned, Thailand - where he allegedly killed six people - asked India to extradite him. Sobhraj would have faced the death penalty in Thailand, if convicted. But in 1986, two years before his jail term was to expire in India, Sobhraj broke out of prison. Quickly recaptured, he was given a new sentence, which meant that, by the time he was released from his second jail-term, the 20-year period to try him in Thailand had expired. India deported him to France, where he kept a low profile. Asked about his legal status in his home country, he prevaricates, 'In France, I have never had any trouble with justice. As far as I know, I was never convicted of anything in my life.' The French authorities arrested Sobhraj as soon as he arrived, but he was released. For reasons unknown, the Thai and Indian authorities never replied to a French offer to extradite him. Once free, Sobhraj cashed in on his reputation. He pursued publicity and raked in multi-million-dollar book and movie deals. For a fee of US$5,000, journalists were granted an interview. Eventually, the attention waned. Perhaps it was to be once again in the headlines and to make money that Sobhraj planned his return to Nepal. Early in September last year, he checked into the Garden hotel in Kathmandu. He showed up every day at the casino of the five-star Yak and Yeti hotel. 'For 13 days, he sat by himself at the casino,' said the manager Ramesh Babu Shreastha. 'He talked to no one. He didn't gamble big. He never drew attention to himself.' Nevertheless, a journalist who had covered Sobhraj's trials in India recognised the quiet gambler. He surreptitiously snapped Sobhraj's picture with his mobile phone. The next day, Sobhraj's face was on the front page of a local newspaper, the Himalayan Times, but that did not upset his routine. 'For the next four days after the news broke, he still came every night,' said Mr Shreastha. 'I was surprised this was the famous killer. He didn't look scary, or even stylish, like in his old photos.' Mr Shreastha said that what he felt was most chilling about Sobhraj were his hands. 'His fingers were gnarled and rough. They looked menacing. He has cruel hands.' Fourteen days after he arrived, police arrested Sobhraj. 'What intrigues me,' said Deputy Superintendent of Police K.C. Ganesh, who is overseeing the investigations, 'is why this guy came back. When we arrested him, I felt he had been expecting us. He was not at all surprised to see us, or afraid.' In Nepal, Sobhraj is wanted for the 1975 murders of Canadian citizen Laurent Carriere and Californian Connie Jo Bronzich. According to police records, Sobhraj passed himself off as a gem dealer when he befriended them. He had entered Nepal on a passport stolen from Dutch victim Bintanja. 'We have a thick file on Sobhraj. This time, he can't escape so easily,' said Superintendent Ganesh. For him, the arrest of the serpent is cathartic. As a young boy of 12, he saw Bronzich's corpse in a paddy field near his home. 'Her body was naked, burnt and mutilated,' he said. 'When I heard a westerner's body was in the field, I rushed to see for myself - initially, because I was curious. But it was so horrible. Her killer is sick, evil.' Bronzich's face was disfigured but her earrings identified her. She had been savagely stabbed in the chest. Carriere's body was also burnt. His hands were bound and his throat slashed. Sobhraj fled his hotel after allegedly committing the murders, but police found a French passport under his name among the personal belongings he had left behind in his haste. Is the serpent gambling with fate? Has he underestimated Nepalese law, or is he trying to resuscitate his gruesome exploits? It was rumoured that the business-minded Sobhraj would grant interviews to foreign journalists only if they coughed up US$4,000. Either feeling generous or perhaps desperate to get his story out, Sobhraj gives interviews these days for free, while his lawyers struggle to get him out on bail. The case is murky. Police files and witnesses from the 1970s are missing, and Sobhraj's defence is taking advantage of that. 'We plan to approach the Supreme Court,' said his lawyer, Sanjeev Ghimire. 'Obviously, the police have only circumstantial evidence connecting him with the 1975 murders.' Earlier this month, Nepal's Appellate Court rejected his appeal for bail. 'The two district judges arbitrate everything, from petty theft to murder,' said Sobhraj with apparent contempt. 'They don't specialise. What can you expect at this level?' He said he believed his notoriety inevitably drew some flak. 'I am an international name. That is why everyone blames me for crimes committed by others.'