Beijing – China’s probe to Mars touched down on the Red Planet early Saturday to deploy its Zhurong rover, state media reported, a triumph for Beijing’s increasingly bold space ambitions and a history-making feat for a nation on its first-ever Martian mission.
The lander carrying Zhurong completed the treacherous descent through the Martian atmosphere using a parachute to navigate the “seven minutes of terror” as it is known, aiming for a vast northern lava plain known as the Utopia Planitia.
The mission “successfully landed in the pre-selected area,” state broadcaster CCTV said, launching a special TV program dedicated to the mission called “Nihao Mars.”
The official Xinhua News Agency cited the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in confirming the touchdown.
It makes China the first country to carry out an orbiting, landing and roving operation during its first mission to Mars — a feat unmatched by the only other two nations to reach the Red Planet so far, the U.S. and Russia.
China has now sent astronauts into space, powered probes to the moon and landed a rover on Mars, the most prestigious of all prizes in the competition for dominion of space.
Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a message of congratulations to all the people involved in the mission.
“You were brave enough for the challenge, pursued excellence and placed our country in the advanced ranks of planetary exploration,” he said. “Your outstanding achievement will forever be etched in the memories of the motherland and the people.”
Zhurong, named after a Chinese mythical fire god, arrives a few months behind America’s latest probe to Mars — Perseverance — as the show of technological might between the two superpowers plays out beyond the bounds of Earth.
Six-wheeled, solar-powered and roughly 240 kilograms, the Chinese rover is on a quest to collect and analyze rock samples from Mars’ surface.
The launch of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars probe which carried the rover last July marked a major milestone in China’s space program.
The spacecraft entered Mars’ orbit in February and after a prolonged silence state media announced it had reached the “crucial touchdown stage” on Friday.
The landing was set to be a nail-biter for the CNSA, with state media describing the process of using a parachute, rocket to slow descent and buffer legs as “the most challenging part of the mission.”
It is expected to spend around three months there taking photos and harvesting geographical data.
The complicated landing process is called the “seven minutes of terror” because it happens faster than radio signals can reach Earth from Mars, meaning communications are limited.
Several U.S., Russian and European attempts to land rovers on Mars have failed in the past, most recently in 2016 with the crash-landing of the Schiaparelli joint Russian-European spacecraft.
The latest successful arrival came in February, when U.S. space agency NASA landed its rover Perseverance, which has since been exploring the planet.
The U.S. rover launched a small robotic helicopter on Mars which was the first ever powered flight on another planet.
The country has come a long way in its race to catch up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration.
China successfully launched the first module of its new space station last month with hopes of having it crewed by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon.
Last week a segment of the Chinese Long March 5B rocket disintegrated over the Indian Ocean in an uncontrolled landing back to Earth.
That drew criticism from the United States and other nations for a breach of etiquette governing the return of space debris to earth, with officials saying the remnants had the potential to endanger life and property.
In a commentary published on Saturday, Xinhua said China was “not looking to compete for leadership in space” but was committed to “unveiling the secrets of the universe and contributing to humanity’s peaceful use of space.”
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China squeezes bitcoin mining and trading
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China has taken another bite out of bitcoin’s potential, stepping up restrictions on cryptocurrency mining and ordering banks to block crypto-related transactions. The news drove bitcoin’s price 10 per cent lower to a two-week low today.
China’s central bank warned several of its largest state-owned banks and Jack Ma’s Alipay to “investigate and identify” bank accounts facilitating cryptocurrency trading and block all corresponding transactions, reports our Beijing bureau.
It had called in the Agricultural Bank of China, China Construction Bank and ICBC among others to discuss “providing services for cryptocurrency transaction speculation”. The regulator wants the financial groups to identify and block all transfers to accounts held by cryptocurrency exchanges and other offshore middlemen. The central bank is steering citizens towards using its own digital currency, which it has started testing in large-scale pilots.
“Bitcoin trading in China will continue but become less liquid, and spreads will increase,” said Leo Weese, co-founder of the Hong Kong Bitcoin Association. “People will limit themselves to trading with their friends and trusted friends-of-friends.”
Elsewhere, officials in all of China’s hubs for mining operations followed Inner Mongolia and released further measures targeting bitcoin creators. Sichuan, a hydropower-rich province in south-west China, has ordered the 26 largest local mines to stop operating while an investigation is carried out. Sichuan was seen as a last resort location for mining operations pushed out of provinces that rely on coal-fired power plants for electricity.
Meanwhile, the central banker overseeing the European Union’s development of a digital euro has been speaking to the Financial Times about its advantages. Fabio Panetta, an executive board member at the European Central Bank, told us it would boost consumers’ privacy and protect the eurozone from the “threat” of competing cryptocurrencies that could undermine the bloc’s monetary sovereignty.
The Internet of (Five) Things
1. German regulator launches Apple probe
Germany’s antitrust watchdog has launched a probe into whether Apple has established market dominance through its “digital ecosystem”, making it the fourth US tech giant the agency has targeted this year. The Federal Cartel Office said on Monday it would look at whether Apple exerted market dominance through its integration of hardware products with digital services such as the App Store, iCloud, or Apple Music. Meanwhile, Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s head of digital and competition policy, has rejected the idea that its forthcoming Digital Markets Act (DMA) will only target American tech companies.
#techFT brings you news, comment and analysis on the big companies, technologies and issues shaping this fastest moving of sectors from specialists based around the world. Click here to get #techFT in your inbox.
2. Tech investor says UK still in 19th century
A “deep sickness” in UK capital markets has stifled the growth of homegrown tech entrepreneurs and left London’s blue-chip FTSE 100 looking like an index from the 19th century, according to James Anderson, joint manager of Baillie Gifford’s Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust. His early bets on Facebook, Amazon and Tesla have made him one of the world’s most successful investors.
3. Volvo and Northvolt to build gigafactory
Volvo Cars and Northvolt will set up a joint venture to build a new battery gigafactory in Europe and develop energy cells for the Swedish premium carmaker and its electric-only sister brand Polestar. Northvolt, Europe’s great battery hope founded by former Tesla executives, is backed by investors including Volkswagen and Goldman Sachs and valued at about $12bn.
4. Malaysian mobile megamerger
Malaysia’s Axiata and Norway’s Telenor have agreed to merge their mobile operations in the south-east Asian country, creating a $12bn entity that will seek to capture rising demand for digital services. The deal, announced on Monday, comes two years after the pair abandoned plans to merge their regional operations in a deal that would have created the biggest telecoms operator in south-east Asia.
5. Ackman Spac invests in music catalogues
A blank-cheque company backed by hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman is to buy a 10 per cent stake in Universal Music Group, Taylor Swift’s label, for $4bn. The deal is the first of its kind for a special acquisition company and comes as music catalogues soar in value.
Tech week ahead
Monday: Activision Blizzard faces a contentious vote on its chief executive’s $155m pay package after delaying the showdown in what critics say was an effort to avoid an embarrassing rebuke.
Tuesday: Amazon’s two-day Prime Sale ends.
Wednesday: The new UK £50 note enters circulation and features Alan Turing, one of the UK’s greatest scientists, on his birthday. Masayoshi Son, SoftBank chairman and CEO, will address the company’s annual meeting amid rising calls for share buybacks after the company recorded a $45bn net profit for the year to March 31.
Thursday: Microsoft unveils its “next generation of Windows” at an event presented by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and chief product officer Panos Panay.
Friday: Days after an independent investigation found that Toshiba executives colluded with Japan’s trade ministry to pressure shareholders over their votes at last year’s general meeting, investors will gather again to elect a new board of 11 directors.
Tech tools — Angell e-bike
The Angell e-bike has élan, which seems appropriate given its French design and origins. It is sleek, stylish and one of the lightest bikes of its kind, weighing in at 15.9Kg. I was able to test ride it recently and relished the surge from its three power-assisted settings — the battery-saving Fly Eco, a regular Fly Dry mode and a Fly Fast one for maximum assistance. The handlebars have integrated buttons that switch between those power modes and turn the left and right indicators and the front and rear lights on and off. A central cockpit display links to your smartphone using Bluetooth and shows speed, battery life, time, distance, weather conditions, and power settings.
I had some quibbles with the battery, which slides on to a rear rack and sometimes became disconnected when riding, unless I kept the key in it so it was fully locked. If you leave the battery off the back for a few days when charging it, the central cockpit console can lose its own charge and curtail any power-assisted rides. I would also prefer a smartphone mount in the centre rather than have both an Angell app and the console screen. Like other smart e-bikes, the Angell has the ability to send a fall alert via text to a chosen contact, as well as automatic locking, motion sensing and geolocation features. It is another £2,000-plus e-bike, costing £2,600, compared to the new Cowboy 4 at £2,290.
US punts negotiation ball back to North Korea
SEOUL – Echoing a classic Martini advert of the 1970s, the US special envoy to North Korea says American negotiators are ready to meet their North Korean counterparts and talk anytime, anywhere.
“We continue to hope that [North Korea] will respond positively to our outreach and our offer to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions,” Ambassador Sung Kim said in Seoul on Monday.
His comments came three days after North Korea signaled, via comments from national leader Kim Jong Un, that it was ready to either talk to or confront the United States. Experts told Asia Times then that the implied emphasis was on “talk”, an analysis that appears to be born out by the US response.
The US envoy arrived in South Korea on Saturday for discussions with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. None of the three states are currently engaged in negotiations with North Korea.
Talks between the US and North Korea, and collaterally South Korea and North Korea, have essentially dwindled away to nothing after a high-potential Pyongyang-Washington summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended without a deal in 2019.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has made clear he favors diplomacy with North Korea, but is not as eager for direct talks with the North Korean leader as was his predecessor Donald Trump.
This approach raises the importance of working-level discussions.
Sung Kim was named Washington’s point man on North Korea by Biden during a South Korea-US summit in Washington last month. However, the envoy wears two hats. The Korean-speaking Korean-American, a former US ambassador to Seoul, is also the current ambassador to Indonesia.
That may suggest a dearth of Korea-related talent in the US State Department.
Though Kim is highly regarded within the Pyongyangology community for his expert knowledge of peninsula affairs, some South Koreans close to the Moon Jae-in administration had hoped that a policy-level official – such as John Kerry or Wendy Sherman – would be appointed to the position.
That would have raised the seniority of the role, thereby requiring Pyongyang to assign an equally high-level official as his negotiating counterpart.
One reason Sung Kim made his “anywhere, anytime” public statement may be North Korea’s current non-responsiveness, said Moon Chung-in, who heads the Sejong Institute think tank.
“Right now, North Korea is not answering. That is my understanding.” said Moon, who has advised three South Korean presidents on North Korean policy.
Kim’s statement on Monday essentially punts the ball back in Pyongyang’s court. Though the two countries lack diplomatic relations, they do not lack communication channels.
There exist multiple hotlines across the DMZ; there is a North Korean mission assigned to the United Nations in New York City; a telephone hotline links South Korea’s presidential Blue House and North Korea’s State Affairs Commission (Kim’s executive office); and there is, Asia Times has learned, email contact between related agencies in Pyongyang and Washington.
So if either Kim – the North Korean leader or the US envoy – really wants to talk, what is stopping them?
“That is not a stupid question,” said Rah Jong-yil, a former South Korean ambassador to both London and Tokyo, who also had experience via the intelligence community of directly engaging with North Korea.
“The only answer to that is that even in interpersonal relations, sometimes we have to go around. There are situations where were cannot engage in direct conversation,” he said.
“This is quite natural. From my experience in dealing with North Korea, there are situations like this where you have to make a detour.”
Moreover, public statements do not necessarily mean that there is zero contact below the radar.
“I am pretty sure they are sending emails and I would think they have conducted some kinds of talks,” said Andrei Lankov, a long-term North Korean watcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Before you fly out to some place, you have to do some groundwork and that is not widely advertised.”
Still, in public, the diplomatic mating dance continues to play out.
“They need this dance as neither side is under terrible pressure to start talks, so they want the other side to start,” Lankov said. “The thinking is, ‘it is up to the other side – which needs us more than we need them.’”
“When a relationship is friendly or sort of normal, we engage in direct communications,” Rah said. “The predicament is that the relationship is not that friendly now.”
Lankov thinks that talks are either ongoing or will soon be as it is in both sides’ interest to avoid worsening relations.
“Neither side hopes for much in the foreseeable future but neither side wants to deal with a confrontation in the region,” he said. “So they want to start talks for the sake of talks, and to keep the situation under control.”
An alternative explanation is provided by David Tizzard, a professor of Korean studies at Seoul Women’s University.
He suggests that the public statements going back and forth are in fact domestic, not diplomatic messages – the aim being to assure local audiences that their leaderships are doing their utmost to forestall potential confrontation.
“A lot of good diplomacy does take place behind closed doors, so who are the public messages really for?” asked Tizzard, who studies diplomacy toward North Korea. “It could be for their own people, internal and domestic.”
Moon, of the Sejong Institute, warned that if talks get underway, the US side should have something concrete to offer, so that the North Korean officials do not have to return home empty-handed as they did under Trump.
China cracks down on iron ore market
Beijing has launched a review into record prices for key steelmaking ingredient iron ore, opening a new front in its campaign to suppress high commodities prices.
In a statement issued on Monday, the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning agency, said it would investigate “malicious speculation” in the iron ore market and “severely punish” any wrongdoing.
The move marks the latest step by Chinese policymakers to cool soaring commodity markets, which have pushed up factory gate prices in China to their highest since the 2008 financial crisis and threatened to squeeze industry profits.
Chinese authorities made a pledge last week to release government stockpiles of industrial metals to tackle concerns over shortages and high prices. China is the world’s biggest consumer of seaborne iron ore, absorbing more than 70 per cent of global production.
“What [this intervention] tells me is they’re very very frustrated, they’re trying to reduce the inflation risk that high commodity prices pose to the economy,” said Tom Price, head of commodities strategy at Liberum.
Iron ore futures tumbled on the news, with the most active contract on the Dalian Commodity Exchange down 9 per cent to $173 a tonne.
In the physical market, where miners and steel mills buy and sell, iron ore was down 5 per cent at $206.55, according to a price assessment from S&P Global Platts.
The price of iron ore surged to a record high of more than $230 a tonne in May on strong demand from China and supply disruptions in Australia and Brazil. That delivered a huge windfall to big producers, a group that includes Rio Tinto, BHP Group and Vale.
The NDRC said in a statement it would “closely scrutinise changes to spot prices, swiftly investigate irregular transactions and malicious speculation, and . . . will severely punish and publicly expose acts such as monopolistic behaviour, spreading around information about price increases, driving up prices and hoarding”.
High metals prices and falling consumer growth have squeezed Chinese heavy industry, with the producer price index climbing 9 per cent in May while consumer prices have remained unchanged.
However, commodity prices have suffered a sharp retreat over the past week, hit by the hawkish shift in tone from the US Federal Reserve and China’s interventions to try and curb inflation. Copper hit an all-time high of $10,500 a tonne on the London Metal Exchange last month but has since come back to about $9,000 a tonne.
The Bloomberg Commodity index peaked earlier in June but has since fallen off 5 per cent, with a drop in the gold price also contributing to its decline.
UBS analyst Myles Allsop said the iron ore price was approaching an “inflection point” through China’s tightening of credit and supply.
“Steel demand is also set to moderate in the second half [of the year] with China tightening credit,” he said. “Brazilian supply is lifting with Vale’s shipments up 14 per cent year to date.”
In London, shares in Rio fell as much as 3 per cent on the news before rebounding, as the FTSE 100 index rose as much as 0.7 per cent in morning trading.
Up to 10,000 fans to be allowed in Tokyo Olympics
Up to 10,000 fans will be allowed at Tokyo Olympic events, organizers said Monday, warning competition could move behind closed doors if infections surge.
The decision, only weeks before the opening ceremony, ends months of speculation about whether spectators will be allowed at the pandemic-postponed Games. Overseas fans were banned in March.
“In light of the government’s restrictions on public events, the spectator limit for the Olympic Games will be set at 50% of venue capacity, up to a maximum of 10,000 people in all venues,” organizers said in a statement.
A decision on spectators at the Paralympics will be delayed until July 16, a week before the Olympics open.
And officials left open the possibility of a reversal if the virus rebounds.
“If there should be major dramatic change in the infection situation, we may need to revisit this matter amongst ourselves and we may need to consider the option of having no spectators in the venues,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said.
Senior medical experts, including top advisers to the government, have said that holding the Games behind closed doors would be “ideal” from a health perspective.
They fear crowds of fans could fuel a new surge in infections in a country still racing to vaccinate its residents.
The decision was announced after five-way talks between Tokyo 2020 organizers and officials from Japan’s government, the Tokyo government, the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee.
Speaking before the meeting, IOC chief Thomas Bach said he was “absolutely sure that it will be a decision to best protect the Japanese people and all participants.”
Tokyo 2020 had already reportedly scrapped plans to sell more tickets and may now face the prospect of organizing lotteries among existing holders for the right to attend events.
Before the Games was postponed last year, organizers had sold about 4.45 million Olympic tickets and nearly a million Paralympic tickets in Japan.
In December, organizers said they would be refunding 18% of Olympic tickets bought domestically and 21% for the Paralympics.
That is still likely to leave many events with more tickets sold than seats available.
Japan has seen a comparatively small virus outbreak, with nearly 14,500 deaths, despite avoiding the harsh lockdowns seen elsewhere.
But the vaccine rollout has been slower than in many developed countries, only picking up speed in recent days. About 6.5% of the population is now fully vaccinated.
Organizers also face a skeptical public. Polls have regularly shown most Japanese would prefer to see the Games delayed further or canceled altogether.
Recent surveys suggest a softening of opposition, with more in favor of holding the Games than canceling it – if a postponement is not offered as an option.
A survey published Monday found about a third of respondents want the Games to happen, up from 14% last month, though a majority still prefer further delay or cancellation.
Organizers say strict rules will keep both athletes and the public safe, and Bach said Monday that “well over” 80% of people staying in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated.
Athletes will be barred from contact with the public and risk being kicked out of the Games if they violate rules including mask-wearing and daily virus tests.
In a taste of the complexities ahead, a member of Uganda’s Olympic team tested positive on arrival in Japan on Saturday.
The team was reportedly all vaccinated and would have had to test negative before traveling to Japan.
Olympic venues to cap number of spectators at 10,000
Japan will limit spectators at the Olympic Games to 50 per cent of a venue’s capacity capped at 10,000 people, a move that flies in the face of the country’s official medical advice.
The decision to push ahead with spectators at the games, even though most of the Japanese public will not be vaccinated against Covid-19, suggests prime minister Yoshihide Suga is willing to risk some extra infections in order to deliver a successful Olympics.
It marks a rejection of last week’s request by Shigeru Omi, the doctor leading Japan’s Covid-19 response, for organisers to hold the Olympics behind closed doors.
“We have prepared for the last eight years and we would like to make these games successful,” said Seiko Hashimoto, president of Tokyo 2020, in a press conference on Monday.
She said there were many examples of spectators attending sports events during the pandemic, both in Japan and abroad, and insisted the event could be held in safety.
Last week, Omi warned that the televised spectacle of stadiums full of spectators would send a contradictory message to the Japanese public that it was safe to relax their precautions against Covid-19.
If the Olympics were held with spectators, Omi said there should be tighter restrictions than for other sporting events, and they should be limited to Tokyo residents to avoid an increase in people travelling.
But while the organisers appeared to reject Omi’s requests, they said the rules could be changed if the coronavirus situation worsened.
“In the event a state of emergency is implemented at any time after July 12, limitations on spectator numbers will be based on the content of the state of emergency,” said Hashimoto. That could yet mean holding the games behind closed doors.
A state of emergency was lifted in Tokyo and Japan’s other big cities at the weekend with new nationwide Covid cases running at about 1,500 a day. Doctors are worried about a fresh wave of the disease, especially as the Delta variant becomes more prevalent.
The Olympics are due to start on July 23. Japan has so far given a first dose of vaccine to sixteen in every 100 people, with priority going to medical personnel and then the elderly.
Only one in ten Olympic events will be affected by the 10,000 maximum on capacity, said Hashimoto. That will include showpiece athletics finals in the Olympic stadium.
Restricting spectator numbers will mean a financial hit to the organisers. Hashimoto said ticket revenue would be less than half of the budgeted ¥90bn ($820m).
She said the organisers, the city of Tokyo and the Japanese government would discuss how to fill the gap in the budget. However, according to the contracts underpinning the games, the burden is likely to fall on Tokyo taxpayers.
‘The Serpent’: Serial killer linked to murders across Asia still haunts four decades on
Bangkok – Nearly half a century after he sowed fear along the 1970s “hippie trail,” French serial killer Charles Sobhraj, the “Serpent” of the hit TV drama series, still haunts the lives of those who crossed his path.
Now 77 and jailed in solitary confinement in Nepal since 2003, Sobhraj is suspected of involvement in at least a dozen murders around Asia in the 1970s.
His modus operandi was to charm and befriend his victims — many of them starry-eyed Western backpackers on a quest for spirituality — before drugging, robbing and murdering them.
The TV series, made jointly by the BBC and Netflix, conjures the seedy, steamy Bangkok of the 1970s with sepia tones, flared trousers and traffic-clogged streets.
French star Tahar Rahim plays Sobhraj, oozing mesmerizing, manipulative menace — in a frighteningly familiar way for one of those who knew him.
When Nadine Gires visited the set of the series in 2019, seeing Rahim in character as Sobhraj brought the past flooding back.
“I was terrified. I thought he had escaped from prison, that he was coming back to do evil,” she said.
“Everything came back: anger, fear.”
Sobhraj — a Frenchman of Vietnamese and Indian parentage — arrived in Bangkok in October 1975 with his Canadian girlfriend and an Indian associate.
They moved into a flat in the same building as Gires, near Bangkok’s notorious Patpong red light district.
What became the Serpent’s lair was demolished years ago, but the disused apartment block that stood in for it in the TV series has become a minor tourist attraction.
Gires, age 22 at the time, was impressed by Sobhraj — not least when he told her he was a gemstone trader, a tactic he used to lure cash-strapped backpackers.
“He was cultured, courteous. As neighbors, it didn’t take long for us to get to know each other,” she said. But doubts soon arose.
“Many people were getting sick in his home. I jokingly said to Charles: ‘You’re putting a curse on them.’”
But Gires, now 67 and running a hotel by the beach in southern Thailand, says she had no idea what Sobhraj was really up to.
“We thought it was weird, but how could we imagine such a scheme?” she says.
But everything changed at Christmas 1975, when a young Frenchman staying with Sobhraj showed them a safe full of forged passports.
“He told us: ‘He poisons people.’ He was terrified,” she explains.
“He was not only a swindler, a seducer, a robber of tourists, but an evil murderer. It had to stop.”
Together with Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, she set about gathering evidence on the slippery Sobhraj, a conman with a host of different identities and adept at covering his tracks.
Gires searched Sobhraj’s apartment and went around backpacker haunts looking for clues about missing persons.
In one of the most dramatic, high-tension scenes of the TV show, Sobhraj bumps into her unexpectedly.
The moment in March 1976 that formed the basis for the scene is still seared into Gires’s memory.
“In a hotel lobby, someone tapped me on the shoulder,” says Gires, who traveled to London to help the show’s scriptwriters.
“It was him. It was the most terrifying moment of my life.”
Fearing for her life, she agreed to let him take her home, hoping to avoid arousing his suspicions.
“My heart was beating 100,000 times a minute but he didn’t notice anything,” she says.
Even now, barely a day goes by without Gires thinking about Sobhraj, and the fear lingers.
“I need to know he is held within four walls. The thought of him being free terrifies me. What could he do now that he knows I knew?” she says.
Sompol Suthimai is 90 now, but the memories of his “most interesting” case still burn bright.
As a Thai police officer working with Interpol, he was on holiday in early 1976 when — under pressure from Knippenberg — the Bangkok Post published photos of murdered tourists.
“I said to myself: this is a joke — how is it possible that so many people have been killed without it being known by the police?” Sompol says.
He rushed back to Bangkok and met Knippenberg, who was initially suspicious, having tried and failed to get the Thai police to take an interest in the case.
Eventually the diplomat passed Sompol the dossier of evidence he had amassed with Gires — diaries and plane tickets belonging to the victims found at Sobhraj’s flat.
But Sobhraj had managed to flee the kingdom a few days earlier. Sompol issued an international arrest warrant.
Sobhraj was arrested in New Delhi in July 1976 and spent two decades in an Indian jail for manslaughter and drugging and robbing tourists.
He went to France after his released and lived there quietly until 2003 before returning to Nepal, where he was jailed for two murders, and has been behind bars ever since.
Sobhraj’s alleged crimes in Thailand have long passed the statute of limitations, and Sompol is left to rue his colleagues’ failings four decades ago.
“The police did not pay much attention. They made a mess,” he sighs.
From his jail cell, Sobhraj sold his story to a publishing house, and in July 1977, Australian journalists Julie Clarke and Richard Neville were dispatched to meet him.
They paid guards to get regular access to him, and a strange relationship developed.
“We’d been down the hippie road too, so we were obsessed with this case,” Clarke said.
Over the course of their meetings, Clarke says, the “charming” Sobhraj recounted the murders in chilling detail, keeping nothing back.
At one point he described pouring petrol on a young Dutchman and setting him on fire after beating him.
“He despised backpackers, he saw them as poor young drug addicts,” says Clarke, now retired and living in Sydney.
“He considered himself as a criminal hero.”
Clarke and Neville’s book, “On the Trail of the Serpent,” became a best-seller and was the basis of the TV serial.
Since then, Sobhraj has denied the crimes, and his French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre says the confessions in the book are “fabricated.”
But Clarke says Sobhraj is trying to “rewrite history” in the hope of getting out of jail.
The few months she spent in the shadow of the killer left her with “traumatic memories.”
“We had nightmares. From his prison, he wrote us missives and dictated us his orders. He had also sent people to watch us,” she says.
But his magnetism was obvious.
“If you were a student traveler on the hippie trail, how could you not trust this man who was into Buddhism and Hinduism, who dropped Nietzsche into the conversation and gave you tips on where to stay?” she says.
Sobhraj’s days of high living are far behind him, and the prison governor in Nepal has told him he will die behind bars, according to his lawyer.
But Clarke says his resilience is remarkable — while in prison he has survived open heart surgery.
“He won his bet with his mother — to die old,” she says.
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