Minister: Australian’s Arrest a Good Message

News that convicted Australian sex offender Clint Better­ridge has been rearrested two months after skipping bail in Cambodia was greeted with praise by Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua on Monday.

The arrest and possible extradition of Betterridge to Cambodia also serves as a signal to all embassies that foreign nationals will be prosecuted for sex crimes in Cambodia, Mu Sochua said.

Betterridge, 35, was arrested on Sunday morning in Australia’s Gold Coast in Queensland state. He fled Cambodia in late January, just weeks before he was to stand trial for sexual offenses against several teenage girls in Siem Reap town. He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail.

Betterridge, whose extradition is being sought by the Cambo­dian government, was due to appear in court in Australia on Monday, Australian Minister for Justice and Customs Christopher Ellison said in a statement re­leased on Sunday.

“Both our governments are engaged in serious efforts to bring child sex offenders to justice…. Australia is committed to protecting children from exploitation and abuse,” he said.

Regulations allowing extradition from Australia to Cambodia only came into force on March 13 and are aimed particularly at Aus­tralians accused or convicted of child sex offenses, Ellison said.

Australian Ambassador to Cam­bodia Louise Hand also said on Monday that both governments had worked closely to resolve the Betterridge case.

Mu Sochua said Betterridge’s flight from Cambodia had been a serious blow to Cambodian efforts to combat sex abuse crimes and had prompted the government to seek changes in Australian law to allow extradition.

“We have to show that he can’t just escape like this,” said Mu Sochua, adding that other foreign embassies in Cambodia should take note of the case.

“It will be the same way [for all foreigners]. The message should go to all embassies,” she said. “We are serious about this.”

The minister said that she was “really happy” to hear of Better­ridge’s arrest.

“We worked so hard to get it done,” Mu Sochua said, adding that she was in favor of similar extradition treaties with other countries.

A Western diplomat said on Monday that Cambodia’s signing of such treaties with more countries would be welcomed.

Extradition would work both ways in that suspects and offenders could be returned to Cambo­dia and, in turn, Phnom Penh would be obliged to extradite foreign nationals back to their home country, the diplomat said.

“The more police cooperation, the better,” the diplomat said.

Minister of Interior Spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Monday that the extradition agreement was groundbreaking and that such agreements from other countries would be welcomed.

While most of the criticism for Betterridge’s flight from Cambo­dia was leveled at the Australian Embassy who provided him with a replacement passport, the Supreme Court last week blasted the role of the Appeals Court in the Australian’s flight.

Branding the Appeals Court decision to grant Betterridge bail “a serious legal error,” the Su­preme Court ordered it annulled on the grounds it was “illegitimate.”

Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt court system has long been accused by child rights NGOs of aiding the release of sex crime suspects.

Mu Sochua acknowledged the role of the courts in wiping out child sex abuse saying she would watch the passage of other sex crime cases through the country’s legal system.

“I will continue to follow so the court will know they are being monitored,” Mu Sochua said.

The Supreme Court decision overruling the Appeals Court bail and the court’s orders to rearrest Betterridge, opened the way for his apprehension in Australia, an embassy official said.

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