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The Serpent: The story of the real-life hippie trail killer Charles Sobhraj | Ents & Arts News

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Inspired by the true story of a fraudster and murderer who preyed on tourists travelling through Asia in the 1970s, The Serpent is the latest true crime drama being binged in lockdown.

Starring Tahar Rahim as killer Charles Sobhraj, and Jenna Coleman as his lover and accomplice Marie-Andree Leclerc, the eight-part drama is currently showing on BBC1 and BBC iPlayer.

“A hidden darkness on Asia’s hippie trail – the twisting, real-life story of a murderer, thief and seductive master of disguise,” is how the BBC bills it, and reviews have praised Rahim’s performance as the “ice-cold” killer who became one of Interpol’s most wanted men.

Here are the details behind the drama.

Charles Sobhraj (TAHAR RAHIM) in The Serpent. Pic: BBC/Mammoth Screen
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Sobhraj is played by Tahar Rahim. Pic: BBC/Mammoth Screen

Who is Charles Sobhraj?

A French national who was born Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj to an Indian father and Vietnamese mother in what was then known as Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Sobhraj led a life of petty crime as a teenager which escalated to much darker deeds.

Evading authorities using false passports across Thailand, India and Nepal, on what was known as the hippie trail travellers’ route, he would pose as a drug dealer or gem salesmen to impress and get to know tourists, before robbing them.

French national Charles Sobhraj (C) takes a taxi back to jail while accompanied by guards in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu July 5, 2004. Nepali authorities on Monday charged the notorious criminal Sobhraj, known as "the Serpent" and the "Bikini Killer", with the 1975 murder of an American backpacker in Kathmandu. REUTERS/Gopal Chitrakar GC/TW
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Sobhraj was jailed in Nepal in 2004, after previously serving prison time in India

He was accused of the murders of several Western tourists, playing cat and mouse with the authorities for years – his ability to give police the slip and escape jail earned him his Serpent nickname, although he also became known as the Bikini Killer as the bodies of several female victims were found in swimwear.

In The Serpent, he is seen poisoning his victims, burning the bodies of some, and leaving others to drown.

Sobhraj was eventually jailed in India in 1976. Ten years later, as his sentence was due to end, he escaped prison – knowing a Thai arrest warrant against him, which would almost certainly have led to the death penalty, was still valid. His escape and subsequent recapture meant his jail term in India was extended – and so he avoided execution in Thailand.

He was eventually released in 1997 and returned to France. Seemingly enjoying his notoriety, he gave media interviews about his life.

But in 2003, having travelled to Nepal once again, he was captured by police there and a murder inquiry was reopened. Some accounts suggest he was hoping to be caught once again, craving the attention. By 2004, he had been jailed again and now aged 76, he remains in prison.

Jenna Coleman in The Serpent. Pic: BBC/© Mammoth Screen
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Marie Andree-Leclerc, also known as Monique in the series, is played by Doctor Who and Victoria star Jenna Coleman. Pic: BBC/ Mammoth Screen

What happened to Marie-Andree Leclerc?

Sobhraj had several followers, with his lover, Marie Andree Leclerc, the most prominent in The Serpent. Seemingly blinded by love and infatuation, she went along with his crimes.

Born in Quebec, Canada, she met Sobhraj while travelling in India.

As his accomplice, she was also jailed for her part in his crimes. However, in 1983 she was allowed to return to Canada as she was suffering from cancer. She died in 1984, aged 38.

Herman Knippenberg (BILLY HOWLE) in The Serpent. Pic: BBC/Mammoth Screen
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Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) carried out his own investigation into Sobhraj’s crimes. Pic: BBC/Mammoth Screen

Who is Herman Knippenberg?

In The Serpent, the story focuses on the investigations made by Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, played by Billy Howle. Working at the Dutch embassy in Thailand, he started looking into Sobhraj’s crimes after coming across the case of two Dutch travellers who had gone missing.

Eventually linking the disappearance to other deaths, he was able to build a case against Sobhraj with the help of one of the criminal’s neighbours.

Ahead of the launch of the series, Howle told the Radio Times that he spoke to the real Mr Knippenberg while researching the role.

“It’s a sort of moral outrage that drives this fastidious investigation that he takes upon himself,” he said. “It’s so unlikely, really, a person in this position doing the job that he was doing, for this to land on his desk, I think it is the moral outrage at the reality of this, the gravity of it, that drives him forward to want to stop it.”

Renowned criminal Charles Sobhraj, 52, sits inside a police van outside a New Delhi court February 24. India formally ordered that Sobhraj, who has faced charges of murder, robbery and jailbreak, to be deported to his native France and barred his re-entry into India.
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Sobhraj is believed to have been behind many murders, not just the deaths he has been convicted over

The victims

Sobhraj was convicted in Nepal over the deaths of Laurent Carriere, from Canada, and American Connie Bronzich, and in India of Frenchman Jean-Luc Solomon, however he is believed to have killed many more.

He has never been tried for crimes in Thailand. Other victims he is linked to include American Teresa Knowlton, Turk Vitali Hakim and his French girlfriend Charmayne Carrou, and Dutch students Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker.

Some names have been changed in the drama out of respect for the victims and their families.

The series is dedicated “to all the young intrepids who set out with big dreams, but never made it home”.

The Serpent is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer

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China gold mine blast: 12 trapped workers still alive following explosion last week | World News

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Twelve miners are still alive a week after an explosion trapped 22 workers underground at a Chinese gold mine, state media says.

Rescue teams are desperately trying to bring them back to the surface following the blast in Shandong province in eastern China on 10 January.

According to China’s Xinhua News Agency, a note passed through a rescue shaft on Sunday night said that while 12 of the workers were still alive, the fate of the other 10 remained unknown.

The rescue shaft had been used to pass food and supplies to the group while they wait.

The handwritten message said that four of the miners had been injured and the health of the others was declining, due to the lack of fresh air and an influx of water.

It added that the group needed medical supplies and drugs, and ended with: “Keep on with the rescue efforts. We have hope, thank you.”

Managers of the operation at the Qixia gold mine, which had been under construction at the time, were arrested and detained, after failing to report the incident for more than a day.

They have since been removed from their posts, along with the mayor of the nearby city of Yantai.

More than 300 people are part of the rescue effort above ground, with teams drilling a new shaft to try and reach the chamber and expel deadly fumes.

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Alexei Navalny: Dominic Raab joins international leaders in calling for immediate release of Putin critic | World News

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Dominic Raab has called for the immediate release of Putin critic Alexei Navalny.

The foreign secretary has joined a host of leading politicians who have condemned Mr Navalny’s arrest on his return to Russia, after he was poisoned with a nerve agent last year.

Mr Raab said: “It is appalling that Alexei Navalny, the victim of a despicable crime, has been detained by Russian authorities. He must be immediately released.

Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia sit in the plane during the flight to Moscow from the Airport Berlin Brandenburg (BER) in Schoenefeld, near Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. Leading Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny plans to fly home to Russia on Sunday after recovering in Germany from his poisoning in August with a nerve agent. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)
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Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia sit in the plane during the flight to Moscow from the Airport Berlin Brandenburg

“Rather than persecuting Mr Navalny, Russia should explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil.”

Mr Navalny was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Sunday, after spending five months in Germany recovering from poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent.

The 44-year-old, who is one of Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics, blames Moscow for the attack that nearly killed him, although the Kremlin denies any involvement.

His detention minutes after landing was widely expected because Russia’s prisons service said he had violated parole terms from a suspended sentence on a 2014 embezzlement conviction.

He is due to be held until a date is set for his case. Lawyers for Mr Navalny said they have not been granted access to him.

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Moment Navalny is detained after landing in Russia

The arrest has prompted international calls for his release, with the US, the UK, Germany, and France condemning Moscow.

On Monday, vaccine deployment minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News the UK government was “very worried” about Mr Navalny’s safety.

He said: “The foreign secretary will say more about this, but we are very worried about the wellbeing and safety of Alexei Navalny.

“And of course, we have to make sure that the Russian government answers why a poison was used.”

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said Washington “strongly condemns” the decision to arrest Mr Navalny and called his detention “the latest in a series of attempts to silence Navalny and other opposition figures and independent voices who are critical of Russian authorities.”

He added on Twitter that he was “deeply troubled” by the move.

“Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain, political opponents,” he said.

President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national security adviser called on the Russian authorities to free him.

“Mr Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” Jake Sullivan said in a tweet.

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‘They tried to kill me,’ says Kremlin critic

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, called Mr Navalny’s arrest “unacceptable” and demanded his immediate release.

He was echoed by the French foreign ministry and German foreign minister Heiko Maas.

Mr Maas said: “Russia is bound by its own constitution and by international obligations to the principle of the rule of law and to the protection of civil rights.

“These principles must, of course, be applied to Alexei Navalny as well. He should be released immediately.”

On leaving Berlin on Sunday, Mr Navalny said he didn’t think he would be arrested as he had “every right” to return to his home country.

The arrest raises tensions in Russia as it approaches national parliament elections this year, in which Mr Navalny’s organisation is expected to be active in trying to defeat pro-Kremlin candidates.

“This is a real act of bravery for Alexei Navalny to return to Russia, given that government agents already tried to kill him once,” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth tweeted.

“But he understandably wants to be part of the pro-democracy movement in Russia, not a dissident in exile.”

Mr Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on 20 August.

He was transferred to a hospital in Berlin two days later.

Labs in Germany, France and Sweden tested the substance he was exposed to.

It was established he was poisoned with a Soviet-era novichok nerve agent – the same kind of substance used against Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a former Russian double agent and his daughter, in a 2018 poisoning in Salisbury.

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COVID-19: China confirms economic bounce-back with 2.3% GDP growth | Business News

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China has confirmed its bounce-back from the coronavirus crisis as official figures revealed its economy grew by 2.3% last year.

The expansion was the weakest since 1976 after the pandemic sent GDP into reverse at the start of 2020.

But the country where COVID-19 was first identified will be the only major global economy to have avoided contracting during a year defined by the catastrophic impact of the outbreak.

People wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak walk past shops along Yandaixiejie alley, in Beijing, China January 16, 2021.
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Retail sales fell for the first time since 1968

Economists expect China’s expansion to pick up further pace this year with growth of more than 8%.

Figures from the country’s national bureau of statistics showed GDP shrank by 9.7% in the first quarter before bouncing back to 11.6% in the April-June period then growing by 3% and 2.6% in the third and fourth quarters.

Retail sales growth slowed towards the end of the year – falling short of analysts’ expectations and leaving them 3.9% lower for 2020 as a whole, in the first decline since 1968.

But exports have picked up pace as manufacturers stepped up production to supply goods to many countries crippled by the pandemic.

Strict restrictions imposed in China helped it to contain the outbreak much more quickly than other countries.

The world’s second biggest economy – also navigating through a trade war with the US – has been helped too by central bank stimulus measures.

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The state of the UK’s pandemic-hit economy

Some analysts cautioned that a recent rebound in COVID-19 cases in the northeast of the country could impact activity and consumption in the run-up to next month’s lunar new year holidays.

China’s 2.3% growth for the year compares with projections that other major economies will all report declines for 2020, with the UK expected to have experienced its worst collapse for three centuries.

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