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Photo of woman sitting next to 'The Serpent' Charles Sobhraj goes viral

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Charles Sobhraj, aka “The Serpent”, became a free man last week.

Sobhraj was accused of killing nearly two dozen tourists in Asia in the 1970s. A recent photo of a woman sitting next to Sobhraj on a plane bound for France, where he will begin his new life, has gone viral.

Journalist Jairaj Singh shared the photo on twitter with the caption: “That awkward moment when you realize you’re sitting next to a serial killer who claimed at least 30 lives.” As of Wednesday night, the tweet has been viewed more than 660,000 times.

French serial killer Charles Sobhraj sits on an aircraft from Nepal to France on December 23, 2022. (Photo by Atish Patel/AFP via Getty Images)

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 medicine. He will live in Paris and a little bit everywhere.”

The French government did not respond to requests for comment on whether Sobhraj could face legal challenges in France. Sobhraj was born in Vietnam during French rule and claims French citizenship.

Sobhraj is believed to have killed at least 20 people in Afghanistan, India, Thailand, Turkey, Nepal, Iran and Hong Kong between 1972 and 1982. He befriended his victims, gave advice on where to have dinner and sometimes let them stay in the apartment in Bangkok that he shared with his girlfriend before he killed them.

But despite numerous legal cases brought against him, judicial authorities across the region have struggled to convict him of the murders – 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 theft but acquitted of murder. In Thailand, he faced 14 murder charges. He avoided extradition by remaining 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 high-security Tihar Prison after luring the 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 at 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 outskirts of the city. He was convicted the following year and sentenced to life in prison – which, in Nepal, is just 20 years.

Sobhraj insisted on his innocence in the case, even though he had spoken in the past of killing other tourists. When he was released from Indian prison, he said he regretted aspects of his past.

Announcing his release this week, Nepal’s Supreme Court said Sobhraj has a heart condition. They also said he has already served more than 75% of his sentence and behaved well in prison, making him eligible for release.

He was released on Friday and ordered to leave Nepal within 15 days. A friend helped him finance a ticket to France, and the French Embassy prepared the travel documents that allowed him to leave, said lawyer Gopal Siwakoti Chitan.

Coutant-Peyre, his French lawyer, welcomed his release.

“I am very happy but very shocked that it took 19 years for him to get his normal freedom,” Coutant-Peyre said at the airport. She also said that his murder conviction in Nepal was based on a “fabricated case” and said the French government had not done enough to help or defend him.

Coutant-Peyre also said that Sobhraj watched the series “The Serpent”, which shows how Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg launched an international investigation into the alleged murders of Sobhraj. He called it “trash”, she said, and told her that “70% is totally fake”.

Sobhraj’s nickname “snake” stems from his reputation as a disguise and escape artist. He was also known as “the bikini killer” because he often targeted young women.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.