Earlier this week, two Belgian police officers arrived in Phnom Penh and checked into the Cambodiana Hotel. They reserved their room for one month, the time they had allotted to investigate the case of a Belgian man accused of having sex with young Cambodian boys in Thailand.
While the case of a foreigner having sex with underage boys or girls cannot be considered unusual in Southeast Asia, a visit by two foreign police officers to investigate the crime in Cambodia is. Although both officers and Belgium’s Honorary Consul in Cambodia declined to comment on the case, the fact that they are in Cambodia investigating could mark a turning point in enforcing sex crimes by foreigners in Cambodia, according to government officials and legal experts.
Enforcement of child sex and trafficking in Cambodia was on the agenda at a three-day conference that started Wednesday at the Comfort Inn on Monivong Boulevard. At the conference, former child prostitutes and Vong Soth, Undersecretary of State of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, discussed the growing problem of child trafficking and prostitution in Cambodia.
An estimated 400 to 800 Cambodian women and children are trafficked to foreign countries for sex each month, according to the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center. Although the government created the Counter-Trafficking Bureau last September to address child trafficking and prostitution, Vong Soth said law enforcement for these crimes is still inadequate in Cambodia.
“The criminals are still stronger than the police,” he said.
According to sources, the Belgium man—known only as “Annan”—is currently being tried in Belgium for sex crimes he committed while in Thailand several years ago. When Annan was in Thailand, he allegedly had sex with two young Cambodian boys. He returned to Belgium with one of the Cambodians, and was subsequently arrested and charged with having sex with a minor under Belgian law.
Even though the crime Annan is alleged to have committed did not happen on Belgian soil, he can still be prosecuted under extraterritorial laws, which are laws which allow a foreigner in Cambodia or elsewhere to be tried in their homeland for crimes committed abroad. France, Sweden, the US, Britain and Canada are a handful of countries that have extraterritorial laws.
“It’s a part of globalization. This is a very new and growing area of law, but it is really the exception rather than the rule,” said George Cooper, legal adviser for Legal Aid of Cambodia.
One example of extraterritorial law is the case of Mark Towner, a 52-year-old British subject who pleaded guilty to 14 charges of abusing minors while in Cambodia. Towner, who was in Cambodia on business in May last year, was arrested after his wife told police that she had found pictures of Towner having sex with the Cambodian children on his computer, an English newspaper reported.
Officials from the British government said that only a handful of cases had been brought under the 1997 Sex Offenders Act, which enables police in Britain to arrest British citizens for illegal sex and pedophilia abroad.
“This legislation enables policing of citizens on a much broader scale and puts these investigations into a much broader frame. Anything that helps us prosecute these men or impedes their activity should be considered a great thing,” Cambodia’s British Ambassador Stephen Bridges said.
Bridges, however, was careful to mention that this type of legislation is not symptomatic of a weak judicial system in Cambodia. While he agreed that Cambodia still needs work to reform their criminal justice system, he said these laws are merely one more tool for battling crimes like pedophilia.
“These laws are not just applied to Cambodia—they can be applied to any country. If a man from the UK commits the same crime in US, he can still be arrested in the UK,” the ambassador said.
Sok Sam Ourn, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project, disagreed with Bridges. He said the reason foreigners are prosecuted in their country of origin for a crime committed in Cambodia is because the authorities here cannot or will not investigate sex crimes cases and bring the foreign suspect to trial,.
“Cambodian police rarely follow through with a full investigation of sex crimes,” he said.
Although use of extraterritorial laws could be considered a bad reflection om the legal and criminal justice in Cambodia, Sok Sam Ourn said he fully supports their use.
“Our top priority is justice for the victim, not the honor of the country,” he said.
Extraterritorial laws are not a quick-fix solution for the child-sex industry in Cambodia. One of the biggest obstacles for applying extraterritorial laws in Cambodia is the lack of extradition treaties here.
For example, although France will prosecute its citizens for sex crimes committed in Cambodia, they have no extradition treaty with Cambodia.
“We cannot arrest [a French citizen] on foreign land,” said an official at the French Embassy. “We have to ask the foreign country if we can extradite the individual. The French government cannot try their citizens here, and we could not arrest them here without the help and permission of the Cambodian authorities.
The official could not comment on the guidelines French authorities use when they choose to intervene in a criminal case. In early June, a French citizen, Pierre Ginott, 44, was arrested in Sihanoukville on charges of having sex with young boys, illegally detaining people and possession of weapons, Sihanoukville police said. Ginot is currently being held in a Sihanoukville police station while awaiting trial in Cambodia.
“The Cambodian authorities are handling this case,” the official said. “In certain cases for certain crimes, the French authorities will become involved.”
(Additional reporting by Ana Nov)