Cambodia gets tough on child sex trade

Arrests of foreigners for charges related to child prostitution have doubled since last year.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Cambodian police this year have arrested at least 12 foreigners on charges of sexually abusing children – more than twice the amount snagged all of last year.

In addition to three Americans, they've caught four Germans, an elderly Swiss man, a Belgium national, and at least three Vietnamese nationals who helped the foreigners procure children.

For those who have long fought pedophilia here, the spike is actually cause for celebration. Most agree the increase from just five arrests last year probably has little to do with the prevalence of the crimes. Rather it's a function of increased political will, effort, and skill – encouraged by foreign governments like the US – on the part of Cambodia's police, who have for years been accused of allowing foreign pedophiles to operate with impunity.

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"They are more reactive, more willing to work on this," says Beatrice Magnier, director of Action Pour Les Enfants, (APLE), a French nongovernmental organization that works to combat the child sex trade.

Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, says, "The authorities have increased their knowledge and skills after cooperation with NGOs. The implementation of the law gets better from one day to the next."

It's a trend that's been in the offing since at least 2000, when Cambodia first launched a major initiative funded by foreign donors aimed at targeting the exploitation of women and children and set up a hotline to receive tips. In 2002, Cambodia established a department in the Ministry of Interior specifically devoted to combating human trafficking and protecting at-risk juveniles.

But obstacles of apathy, corruption, and poverty prove to be constant challenges, NGO workers say. After all, many of the former leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime continue to live freely in Cambodia's northwestern provinces, unrepentant for crimes that killed 2 million Cambodians between the years 1975-1979. In Phnom Penh, angry mobs routinely beat thieves to death on the streets, because few trust the police to prosecute them. And corruption can often buy freedom for even the most heinous crimes.

But in recent years, foreign governments have gotten more serious about cracking down on the problem, and made it more difficult for Cambodian authorities to ignore.

In 2003, the US Congress passed the Child Protect Act, which allows the US to prosecute American citizens in the US for crimes against children committed overseas. Penalties can reach 30 years in prison. Canada, among others, recently enacted a similar law.

Since 2003, Cambodia has arrested and deported at least six Americans to face charges there, under the new law. One was Michael John Koklich, a California native who fled Cambodian police on his motorbike in February, before crashing into a barricade, and taking down Phnom Penh's deputy municipal antitrafficking police chief in the process.

"Cambodia has become a valuable ally in arresting the worst of all sexual predators, pedophiles," US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli says. "We are very pleased with the excellent cooperation we have received."

And there are other encouraging signs. For years, pedophiles flocked to Svay Pak, the brothel village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, bragging about exploits at coffeehouses and bars. NGOs and foreign governments tried in vain to convince Cambodia to do something about the child prostitution, which operated with impunity there. The government shut it down in 2004.

Nowadays in the countryside, even in remote areas, signs abound bearing the hotline number and the slogan: "Turn a sex tourist into an ex-tourist." The signs show a white hand holding the hand of a child in one picture, and the white hand in hand cuffs next.

Still, most agree there is a lot of work to be done. Even as Cambodia has taken steps forward, some point to recent missteps. Police arrested Terry Darrell Smith on July 31 and, according to the International Justice Mission (IJM), found evidence he was involved with two Vietnamese girls in their early teens.

But earlier this month, a Cambodian court released him and, says IJM, a US group working to end the underage sex trade, he disappeared for weeks. Police rearrested him last Wednesday following public outcry and diplomatic pressure, according to local newspaper reports. Authorities now plan to deport him to his home state of Oregon where he will face criminal charges. "The policies are improving, but the court is still very weak," says APLE's Mr. Magnier.

Recently, Cambodia apparently granted citizenship to Thomas Frank White, a millionaire from San Francisco currently in a Mexican jail on child sex charges. He's also wanted in the US for violating the Protect Act and has been accused by Thai officials of abusing children there.

Suspected pedophiles often come to Cambodia hoping to find anonymity. Fifteen years ago in Oregon, Mr. Smith had been "convicted of multiple charges that he used children in displays of sexual acts," The Oregonian reported last week. Belgian national Bessape Philippe, also arrested recently, had spent three years in a Belgian prison for abusing three Belgian boys aged 14 to 16.

APLE's Magnier says it's difficult to stop pedophiles operating in remote provinces. Perpetrators are often residents or long-term tourists who insinuate themselves into the lives of families, and develop the role of financial benefactors. They will prey on the child and use their financial leverage to prevent the family from taking action, he says.

Many of the recent cases came to light only because the perpetrators were careless and reported by groups like APLE, or cruel enough to make a scene. In the others, NGO workers used detective work: following tips, tracking suspects, interviewing victims, and turning cases over to the police.

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