Momentum to stamp out foreign paedophiles builds in Cambodia

From billboards warning of harsh penalties to eagle-eyed hotel workers being called on to report suspicious people, Cambodia is stepping up its fight against foreign paedophiles preying on its children.

After decades of war that ended just six years ago, the freewheeling, poverty-stricken kingdom has earned a dubious reputation as a haven for paedophiles, with a lax judicial system and entrenched culture of impunity.

But experts say the tide is turning with 21 foreign paedophiles jailed or deported from Cambodia since the start of 2003, according to interior ministry figures.

"The government has acknowledged that it has a problem and it has started to take action, and it has been supported by international action," said UNICEF country representative in Cambodia Rodney Hatfield.

"With aspirations of being a tourism centre, this is something they need to eliminate," he added.

Cambodian hotel and guesthouse owners in March were asked to report suspected paedophiles. Last month, non-government organisation World Vision launched a series of prominent billboards in the capital with the US Department of Immigration warning: "Abuse a child in this country, go to jail in yours."

The billboards, with a hotline number to report suspects, are also planned for Siem Reap, the gateway to the famed Angkor Wat temple complex, and the beachside resort of Sihanoukville.

Under 2003 US legislation, any of its citizens having sex with a child abroad faces 30 years in a US prison. Three US nationals have already been deported from Cambodia since September last year.

"We have to tell the world that Cambodia is not a sex tourist destination. They can come here for cultural tourism but not sex tourism," interior ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told AFP.

Japan and Australia are also among an increasing number of countries enacting similar legislation ensuring crimes against children are punishable in the offender’s home country.

Hang Vibol, director of Action Pour les Enfants (Action for Children), a group that monitors suspected paedophiles and feeds information to police, applauds shifting prosecution out of Cambodia.

"In Cambodia, the situation is that if people give money to police or to the courts, they get off," he said. "In Cambodia if you have money you can do anything."

Other problems include paedophiles becoming more discreet, complicit parents and powerful local interests ensuring a steady supply of victims.

"Police seem to be paying more attention to this kind of problem… but the numbers of paedophiles are still the same. Those committing this crime are changing their strategy," Hang Vibol said.

They once brazenly picked up children from main tourist areas in the capital, but now ask motorcycle taxi drivers to take them outside the city to prowl for available children, or befriend a child and build relationships with their parents.

"Some parents are cooperating with paedophiles to sell their own children. The parents are not helping to give evidence," he added.

Hatfield said the biggest single problem remained that people were making money out of the business.

"It’s all very well stamping down on the demand, but it’s an unpleasant fact that we don’t seem to be able to do much about the supply."

While arrests are increasing, a handful of westerners detained have been released, calling into question how evidence is handled and whether innocent people are being unfairly treated, or the guilty getting off.

"It’s important not to presume guilt," said World Vision’s Laurence Gray, who has worked in child protection here since 1995.

"There is a process that needs to be followed and NGOs can help give a voice to this. If people are freed and justice has not been done, then this means there needs to be better mechanisms, a better system."

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