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Charles Sobhraj, convicted assassin, has a brand new story to inform | Crime

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Late final yr, after spending 19 years in a Nepali jail, 79-year-old convicted assassin Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj was revelling in his new-found freedom. The day after Christmas, a textual content message from Sobhraj landed on my telephone, despatched from a lodge in Paris: “It’s 6am and I’m in my first bathtub since a few years. Feels so good.”

Just a few hours later, an image of his Boxing Day breakfast arrived: three sorts of cheese, salami and prunes on a white plate subsequent to a cup of black espresso. “Have breakfast,” he wrote.

Three days beforehand, Sobhraj, a French citizen, had been launched from Kathmandu Central Jail the place he had been imprisoned for the homicide of two backpackers in 1975.

It was not his first time in jail. Sobhraj has spent greater than 40 years in numerous prisons, together with in Athens and Tehran, and 21 years in India on expenses together with homicide. It was throughout his time in Delhi’s high-security Tihar Jail within the Nineties after I first met Sobhraj. Again then I used to be a criminal offense reporter within the Indian capital and would usually interview him.

Within the Nineteen Seventies, Sobhraj stalked the “hippie path” in Asia befriending younger, unsuspecting, Western backpackers to rob them of their passports and cash after spiking their drinks and meals with laxatives and sleeping capsules.

Sobhraj would use his victims’ identities – names and passports – in a single nation to journey to a different the place he would commit extra crimes and proceed the sample, making a maze of stolen, shifting identities. Dubbed “the Serpent” for his skill to evade the authorities in numerous international locations, Sobhraj has been linked to greater than 10 murders in Nepal, India, Pakistan and Thailand, and is suspected of extra, however has been convicted of simply two.

His story and his crimes, principally dedicated between 1970 and 1976, have fascinated the media and been the topic of bestselling books and the 2021 eight-part Netflix-BBC sequence, The Serpent.

Now a free man, Sobhraj has been busy making an attempt to promote his story.

His memoir and a documentary on his life have been launched. He received’t say how a lot he was paid for his memoir however says he plans to journey the world with a digital camera crew to report a sequence on his life, and is basing himself in London as he negotiates contracts for sequence and movies. He additionally says he plans to sue all these he feels have wronged him.

However those that have adopted his crimes, together with a Nepal police official and a German former senior United Nations official who helped safe a world arrest warrant for Sobhraj, see these plans as a part of a brand new chapter in a well-known story of manipulation.

A photo of food on a plate with a cup of coffee on the side.
Sobhraj’s breakfast a number of days after his launch from Kathmandu Central Jail [Photo courtesy of Charles Sobhraj]

‘We’re going to sue’

In Kathmandu, Sobhraj had been serving a 20-year life sentence for the murders of Connie Jo Bronzich, a 29-year-old American radiology pupil, and Laurent Carriere, a 26-year-old Canadian backpacker and seasonal miner.

Though Bronzich and Carriere had been murdered in 1975, it might take 28 years for Sobhraj’s arrest in 2003 and subsequent conviction.

After present process cardiac surgical procedure in jail, in 2019 Sobhraj started petitioning Nepal’s Supreme Courtroom for early launch on the grounds of age, well being and good conduct – no crime dedicated whereas in custody. The order for his launch got here final yr on December 21.

In a telephone interview on Christmas Day, talking from the noisy foyer of a three-star lodge in Paris, he instructed me, “I’ve by no means killed anyone in my life.” His tone was characteristically whilst he added: “I’ve taken passport, used passport, stolen some cash. However I’ve by no means killed folks.”

Sobhraj alleges that he was framed for the murders and that he by no means entered Nepal earlier than 2003. He claims that he’s a “sufferer” of what he says is a corrupt legal justice system.

“We [he and his lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre] are going to sue the state of Nepal earlier than the UN Human Rights Committee,” Sobhraj instructed Al Jazeera.

“We’re going to sue Netflix and BBC for The Serpent as a result of they’ve made the sequence on the premise that I’ve been convicted in Nepal in two homicide instances, due to this fact I’m a serial killer,” he mentioned.

Police officers escort Charles Sobhraj, a French national known as 'The Serpent', suspected of killing over 20 Western backpackers across Asia, to the Department of Immigration after he was released from prison, following an order of Nepal's Supreme Court, in Kathmandu, Nepal December 23, 2022
Sobhraj is escorted to the Division of Immigration in Nepal after being launched from jail on December 23, 2022 [Chandra Bahadur Ale/Reuters]

‘A fantastic half is fiction’

Sobhraj’s memoir, Moi, le Serpent (Me, the Serpent), printed in French by L’Archipel, was launched in February, and its translations into different languages, together with English, with the title, The Memoirs of The Serpent, shall be launched quickly. A 90-minute French documentary, Sur la piste du Serpent (On the Snake’s Path), has been launched in some French-speaking markets, together with France and Canada.

The story that Sobhraj advances in his memoir and the documentary is that he’s not a killer, however a smuggler and gems supplier who drugged and robbed folks, and a legal with an enormous community of contacts whose help has usually been sought by intelligence businesses, politicians and safety operatives.

This stands in distinction to Richard Neville and Julie Clarke’s 1979 ebook The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj the place Sobhraj claims he was a paid murderer for a smuggling ring for medication, diamonds and arms involving Chinese language Triads, and his victims had been beginner or rival drug “couriers”.

French director Jean-Charles Deniau, who made the documentary with Sobhraj’s collaboration, instructed me final yr that in it “Sobhraj solutions questions” about his crimes and claims.

“Not all of what he says is true … a terrific half is fiction,” mentioned Deniau, who had been engaged on the documentary since 2005. (Disclaimer: Deniau additionally interviewed me for his documentary.)

Deniau additionally edited and co-wrote Sobhraj’s memoir, the place he interjects to supply context or his standpoint. “In spite of everything these years, I nonetheless don’t know who Charles Sobhraj actually is and what he continues to stubbornly disguise,” he writes.

“Tales like this [about Sobhraj] get eyeballs. Folks learn them, they like to look at it,” mentioned Angela Kane, the previous UN official who labored together with her then-husband, the retired Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, to collect proof towards Sobhraj within the Nineteen Seventies.

“I believe that is what he’s making an attempt to do now – he’s principally making an attempt to capitalise on his notoriety,” Kane mentioned. “Crime shouldn’t pay.”

A photo of the outside of the main entrance of Tihar Jail in New Delhi with a tuk tuk on the side and guards and people standing around the gate.
Sobhraj spent 21 years in Delhi’s Tihar Jail [File: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP]

An unreliable supply

I used to be on the crime beat with a newspaper in Delhi after I first met Sobhraj within the mid-Nineties.

Sobhraj, one thing of a celeb legal, at all times made front-page information and was a supply of data for a lot of journalists, together with me, in regards to the goings-on inside Tihar Jail, the place he was lodged between 1976 and 1997. He was arrested for drugging 60 French vacationers and was sentenced to 2 years in jail for this crime, as a number of different instances had been introduced towards him together with theft, extra druggings, homicide and later, a brazen jailbreak. He was cleared of theft and the opposite druggings, and located responsible of and sentenced to jail for the murders of an Israeli named Alan Aaron Jacobs and a Frenchman named Jean-Luc Solomon, however later acquitted.

Other than the various legal instances filed towards him, Sobhraj additionally filed a number of instances towards jail officers, alleging mistreatment and corruption. His court docket outings, due to this fact, had been common and infrequently lengthy.

Sobhraj would arrive for his court docket appearances trying like a scholarly professor – lean and bespectacled, carrying a flat cap, suede footwear and a pen within the pocket of his collared shirt. He had a pointy reminiscence, adopted the information, and browse judgements, books on legislation, psychology and criminals.

Sobhraj at all times reacted to accusations and probing questions not as an accused, however as an agitated defence legal professional, specializing in discrepancies in timelines, the trivialities that didn’t tally and technicalities that could possibly be grounds for acquittal. He would, at occasions, argue his personal instances in court docket. And a minimum of as soon as, when a homicide case was not going effectively for him, he launched a quick unto loss of life to protest towards the injustice of India’s justice system.

Articulate and nice, however with piercing eyes which by no means smiled, he would freely chat with journalists and, understanding what they wished – scoops – would drip-feed info to them. He at all times had a narrative to inform, and in all of them, he solid himself as a crusader for justice. This distraction helped him keep away from conversations about his personal crimes and victims.

I’d interview him incessantly at his court docket outings and he would usually name me with information from a cell phone he had managed to accumulate in jail.

At occasions, he supplied correct details about high-profile prisoners, however when it got here to telling tales about himself – he was usually an unreliable supply.

Charles Sobhraj, left, at one time wanted in eight different countries for crimes ranging from car theft to murder, arrives handcuffed by police at a courthouse in New Delhi, India, Jan. 20, 1993. The Vietnamese-born Frenchman, who has been in Indian jails since 1976, is on trial for a jailbreak eight years ago. The judicial process is likely to last beyond a December 1995 deadline, when an extradition request by Thailand on murder charges will expire under a 20-year statute of limitations
Sobhraj arrives at a Delhi court docket in January 1993 [Ajit Kumar/AP Photo]

‘King of Tihar’

“He may learn each particular person’s psychology and would perceive precisely what they wished. If he figured that an official is trustworthy, he would file false instances towards them and extort cash to withdraw the case,” recounted Sunil Gupta, who held varied positions within the Tihar Jail administration from 1981 to 2016 and co-wrote the 2019 ebook Black Warrant which affords an account of high-profile prisoners and lawlessness contained in the jail.

The instances Sobhraj filed towards jail officers had been for extortion and beatings which he claimed he and different prisoners had been subjected to in Tihar, in addition to his solitary confinement. However the fact was that he barely frolicked in his 12×10-foot (3.6×3-metre) cell. He would transfer across the jail freely, enter administrative workplaces, usually with out permission, and there have been additionally reviews a couple of gang he had shaped with another inmates. They’d promote medication and liquor to prisoners, bribe officers, accumulate cash on their behalf and beat up inmates who objected. A newspaper termed Sobhraj “King of Tihar”.

“He had many girlfriends and infrequently he would meet them within the chambers of jail officers. [After that] he would let jail officers spend time along with his girlfriends. These girls would report conversations with officers and Sobhraj would use these recordings to blackmail the officers,” recalled Gupta, who referred to Sobhraj as a “grasp cheat” who thrived on manipulating folks.

By 1986, Sobhraj, after managing to get the responsible verdicts towards him in each homicide instances overturned, had no pending instances and his jail time period in India was coming to an finish. A New Delhi court docket had cleared his extradition to Thailand the place he may face the firing squad for the murders of a Dutch couple and an try to homicide two Australians. He wanted to dodge that bullet till the 20-year statute of limitation kicked in.

It was Sobhraj’s well-oiled community and clout in Tihar Jail that helped him pull off an audacious jailbreak on March 16, 1986, by distributing sedative-laced sweets to the guards which he had reportedly examined on a cat within the jail the week earlier than. Sobhraj escaped together with 11 different inmates however was arrested in Goa on April 6, his birthday, and returned to Tihar.

Sobhraj remained in jail for an additional 11 years, dealing with trial for the jailbreak. By the point he was launched in India – having already served the utmost time period of 10 years for such a criminal offense – and deported to France in 1997 on the age of 53, the instances in Thailand had lapsed, his hair was thinning and, ever useless about his seems to be, hair-grafting was on his thoughts.

Charles Sobhraj, center, the alleged leader of an Asian murder ring, and his girlfriend Marie-Andree Leclerc, striped dress, wait outside of court during one of their appearances, in New Delhi, India, Feb. 24, 1977. They are in court for preliminary hearings into whether they should be charged with the drugging, robbing and murder of foreign tourists. They were arrested here last July and are also wanted by authorities in Thailand. (AP Photo)
Sobhraj, centre, and his then-girlfriend Marie-Andree Leclerc, await a preliminary court docket listening to in 1977 on whether or not they need to be charged with drugging, theft and homicide [AP Photo]

‘Taken in by his persona’

Earlier than his years inside Tihar, Sobhraj had within the Nineteen Seventies carried out druggings, robberies, murders and jail escapes. His crime path, which started in France, coursed via Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, earlier than he arrange his base in Bangkok, Thailand.

Sobhraj, who’s of Indian and Vietnamese descent, operated below the alias “Alain Gautier”, a gem supplier. He wore silk shirts and carried a crocodile-skin attache case he had stolen in Singapore and was accompanied by his Canadian girlfriend Marie-Andree Leclerc who posed as his spouse “Monique”.

“He was form of a person of the world, which means that he spoke languages, he was ‘established’, as a result of he had a spouse, as he mentioned, and he was a gem supplier. Gems, in fact, are at all times enticing to folks, they suppose they’ll get a particular deal, perhaps somewhat bit extra low cost … And so these younger those who he befriended, they had been taken in by his persona and, I hesitate to make use of the phrase, however perhaps somewhat little bit of glamour that he had,” Kane instructed Al Jazeera in a telephone interview, talking from her dwelling in Vienna, Austria.

“So long as I can discuss to folks, I can manipulate them,” Sobhraj had instructed Neville and Clarke.

Sobhraj principally focused white backpackers who had been carrying cash that they had saved for months of journey to locations that had been removed from their houses. He focused folks in international locations like India, Nepal and Thailand the place the paperwork was labyrinthine and corruption was rampant.

A photo of street food stalls in Bangkok, Thailand with a food stall selling mangoes and people walking in the street.
Within the Nineteen Seventies, Sobhraj operated out of Bangkok [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

In December 1975, Sobhraj and LeClerc had travelled to Nepal on the passports of two Dutch backpackers of their twenties, a secretary named Cornelia Hemker and Henricus Bintanja, a PhD chemistry pupil, after Sobhraj, together with a male confederate, allegedly murdered them in Thailand. Hemker and Bintanja had been nonetheless alive once they had been doused with petrol and set on fireplace.

Lower than every week after Sobhraj and LeClerc’s arrival in Kathmandu, the burned our bodies of Bronzich and Carriere bearing knife wounds had been found on the outskirts of the town.

An Australian lady staying at Bronzich’s finances lodge remembered her assembly a “Vietnamese-looking” gem supplier in Kathmandu. Sobhraj was questioned by the police. Days later, he escaped to India by street. The next spring, with the assistance of Knippenberg and Kane, who had been primarily based in Bangkok, the Thai police and Interpol would subject an arrest warrant towards Sobhraj and his accomplices for 4 murders. With the assistance of Interpol and proof gathered by Knippenberg and Kane, Nepal police registered a case towards Sobhraj for Bronzich and Carriere’s murders.

Nepal has no statute of limitation in homicide instances and in 2003, six years after Sobhraj’s launch from Tihar, the 1975 murders in Nepal would meet up with him as a result of he would make what he describes in his memoir as “a deadly error”; he would journey to Nepal.

A photo of Angela Kane sitting at a desk.
Angela Kane within the Netherlands, shortly earlier than transferring to Thailand in March 1975 the place she and her then-husband Herman Knippenberg helped accumulate proof towards Sobhraj [Photo courtesy of Angela Kane]

‘He desires to make large cash’

It stays unclear why he returned. Sobhraj instructed me he wished to make a documentary about handicrafts. In his autobiography, he writes that he travelled to Nepal as “a part of my intelligence actions”. Journalists and police officers who’ve adopted his story through the years counsel he couldn’t bear to be out of the information cycle. Deniau, within the memoir, writes, “If he returned to the unhappy banality of on a regular basis life, it might be a tragedy for him.”

Again in Kathmandu, Sobhraj was noticed by a reporter in the primary vacationer space and arrested a day after the publication of a front-page story in The Himalayan Instances with the headline, “The Serpent dwelling incognito in Thamel”.

Nepal police had been certain that they had the best man, however finding decades-old information was going to take time. “We couldn’t maintain him in unlawful detention. We would have liked to maintain him in authorized remand. So the primary cost we filed was an immigration case,” Ganesh KC, former deputy inspector common of police in Kathmandu and the chief investigating officer for Bronzich’s homicide case in 2003, instructed Al Jazeera.

A case was filed towards Sobhraj for getting into Nepal in 1975 on the cast passport of Bintanja. And as soon as the paperwork was prepared, he was charged and placed on trial for the murders of the 2 backpackers.

Sobhraj maintained all through the trial that he had by no means visited Nepal earlier than 2003.

“Truth is one factor, what he says is completely different,” mentioned Ganesh KC.

The similarities between Sobhraj’s signature within the visitor registers of the accommodations the place he stayed in 1975 and within the French passport on which he had travelled to Nepal in 2003 had been introduced as proof. He was convicted of Bronzich’s homicide in 2004, and of Laurent’s in 2014.

A photo of people walking through the Thamel tourist district.
In 2003, Sobhraj was noticed in Kathmandu’s important vacationer neighbourhood of Thamel [Rebecca Conway/Getty Images]

Sobhraj alleges that Knippenberg, who he refers to as “my reverse social gathering”, paid police officers and judges to maintain him in jail. Knippenberg was knighted by the Dutch king final yr for his dogged efforts in investigating Sobhraj and in search of justice for his victims and was a employed marketing consultant on the Netflix sequence. Al Jazeera was instructed by way of the Dutch embassy in Delhi that Knippenberg was at the moment not “making any feedback concerning The Serpent”.

Ganesh KC laughed after I requested him about Sobhraj’s allegations of bribes paid to get him convicted.

“Do you imagine him?” Ganesh KC, who mentioned he’s aware of what he calls Sobhraj’s “khurafati dimaag” (malicious thoughts), requested of Sobhraj’s allegations. “He desires media publicity as a result of he desires to make large cash. So many filmmakers, documentary makers, ebook writers and publishers are behind him. All of them need to become profitable from his crime-celebrity life. So the police, legal justice system are proven as fools. That’s how he has at all times been.”

The authorized problem that Sobhraj is getting ready to mount towards Nepal has nothing to do with the homicide trial, the signature proof introduced towards him or the alleged bribes.

As a substitute, to show that he’s harmless of the murders, he desires to indicate that he by no means entered Nepal earlier than 2003. To do this he plans to problem his conviction for getting into the nation on the cast passport of Bintanja. And based on Sobhraj, all of it hinges on a date he’s fixated on – April 7, 1975.

“Within the [immigration case] chargesheet, they’ve mentioned that I entered Nepal on April 7, 1975. It’s not possible … I used to be in Athens jail at the moment as a result of I had been arrested with a solid Japanese passport,” Sobhraj instructed Al Jazeera over a video name as he bent over and browse from English translations he had commissioned of a number of Nepali authorized paperwork.

“I’m very legal-minded and after I converse one thing, it’s primarily based on details,” he added sharply.

Sobhraj claims the immigration case is “false” and was used to indicate his presence in Nepal to convict him of the 2 murders. He’s satisfied that if he can show he was not within the nation on that date, the homicide convictions can not maintain. Since he merely dismisses all proof such because the handwriting samples, he claims there could be nothing else to show his presence in Nepal in 1975. “They don’t have anything,” he repeated in an interview.

A photo of a man standing in a balcony with trees in the background.
Ganesh KC, former deputy inspector common of police in Kathmandu and chief investigating officer for Connie Jo Bronzich’s homicide case in 2003, is seen on December 23, 2022, the day of Sobhraj’s deportation from Nepal [Photo courtesy of Ganesh KC]

‘He’s a grasp of lies and deception’

I hadn’t heard from Sobhraj after 1997 till he contacted me final August from the Kathmandu jail to let me know that he would quickly be launched.

As at all times, he knew what was occurring in India, had an opinion about it, and an answer.

He would name virtually each week, talking typically of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and criticising him for revoking Kashmir’s particular standing, taking away the rights of India’s solely Muslim-majority state accorded by the Indian structure. Earlier than this revocation, Kashmir had the best to its personal structure and to make legal guidelines excluding these regarding communications, international affairs and defence. “I’m utterly towards lots of the issues he’s doing,” Sobhraj mentioned.

“Previous to my drawback in Nepal, I used to be working for the Individuals, the CIA towards the Taliban and bin Laden,” he instructed me after which requested for the telephone numbers of a few of India’s prime politicians and Bollywood actors.

However when an interview befell over two days final December he refused to reply questions in regards to the dealings he alleges to have with safety businesses and armed teams, his previous or his crimes.

“I don’t need to talk about it, OK? You will notice that within the documentary and within the ebook,” he mentioned, and insisted that he solely wished to speak about his conviction in Nepal and his future plans.

He spoke with pleasure about his intention to journey the world with a movie crew to report his life story and hopes of securing Chinese language monetary backing to arrange a information channel to cowl Chinese language enterprise. “This one is my child,” he mentioned.

Altering tack, I requested him if he knew Bronzich and Carriere in Nepal.

“Hear, how I knew them after I by no means got here to Nepal [before 2003]? What a silly query!” he snapped.

And after I requested him a couple of diary entry Bronzich left behind mentioning “Alain Gautier,” he bristled.

“I don’t need you to make a blah, blah, blah [news report] such as you need to do. Neglect in regards to the previous. You solely have to talk about Nepal,” he mentioned.

“Why didn’t you problem your conviction whilst you had been in Nepal jail?” I requested.

“My expensive,” he mentioned with palpable irritation and impatience, earlier than explaining that in search of a assessment would have meant delaying his launch for many years. “That would be the most silly factor to do.”

He stored returning to the case he says he desires to file towards Nepal and the date – April 7, 1975.

He despatched me the immigration chargesheet in Nepali and the English translations he had gotten accomplished. The English doc says Sobhraj entered Kathmandu on April 7, 1975, on Bintanja’s passport.

Ganesh KC laughed after I requested for touch upon Sobhraj’s reasoning. He mentioned it’s clear within the Nepali chargesheet that the April 7 date refers back to the date when Bintanja’s passport, on which Sobhraj had travelled to Nepal, was issued. It’s not the date of Sobhraj’s journey to Nepal. The English translation is wrong in regards to the date’s significance. “He’s a grasp of lies and deception,” Ganesh KC mentioned, matter of factly.

Nepal Supreme Courtroom lawyer Ananta Raj Luitel, who has written a ebook about Sobhraj in Nepalese, confirmed that the date Sobhraj thinks is his trump card to ascertain he was not in Nepal – and is due to this fact harmless of the murders – is the date when Bintanja’s passport was issued.

A photo of a man sitting on a sofa and writing something in a notebook on top of the table in front of him with a Christmas tree in the corner of the room next to him.
Sobhraj in Paris final yr after his launch and deportation from Nepal [Photo courtesy of Charles Sobhraj]

Closure

Within the coastal Indian state of Goa, a statue of Sobhraj sits on the balcony of O’Coqueiro, the restaurant the place he was arrested in 1986.

For Ganesh KC, Sobhraj’s notoriety has stamped out the tales of his many victims.

“He would destroy their id,” mentioned Ganesh KC, referring to the theft of individuals’s paperwork, and the way homicide victims had been stripped and burned.

Ganesh KC believes Sobhraj solely stands to realize from any media consideration.

“Media, filmmakers, ebook writers, whether or not working for cash or fame, all appear to be working for Charles. That is the vidambana [irony],” Ganesh KC warned.

Ganesh KC mentioned that in 2004, after Sobhraj was convicted of Bronzich’s homicide, he obtained a letter from her father. “He [Bronzich’s father] was virtually 85 at the moment, overwhelmed that his daughter’s soul would have gotten peace with Charles Sobhraj behind bars,” Ganesh KC recalled.

Kane, too, obtained a letter, in April 2021, from a person in the UK whose aunt had died in Goa within the seventies.

“He kind of mentioned, ‘Have you learnt something about this? My aunt died in very mysterious circumstances and he or she was cremated earlier than we knew about it. … We predict that Charles Sobhraj was behind that.’ You already know, this household was clearly in anguish,” Kane mentioned.

“My coronary heart goes out to individuals who clearly had family members [go] lacking at that age who had been travelling, you recognize, in a form of hippie-like means, if I can name it that, after which who had been by no means heard from [again].” What folks need, she added, is “closure”.

A way of justice prevailed for the households of the victims whereas Sobhraj was in jail, she believes. “I’m wondering how these households really feel now that Sobhraj is free.”

Sobhraj shall be 80 subsequent yr. His hair is now white and has receded to settle over his ears.

“Folks say I look 68. I nonetheless have 10 good, lively years,” he mentioned with glee over the telephone. However again in January, when he despatched me {a photograph} of him sitting subsequent to a Christmas tree in Paris, he captioned it, “The ugly man.”

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