The Supreme Court on Wednesday failed to uphold a 28-year prison sentence for notorious German child-pornographer Karl Heinz Henning, citing a lack of evidence and referring his case back to the Appeal Court, officials said.
Henning, 67, was arrested in August 2006 when anti-human trafficking police raided his apartment in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district and discovered four naked Vietnamese girls between the ages of 10 and 14.
In what was then the largest seizure of child pornography in Cambodia’s history, police also confiscated eight computer hard drives containing thousands of videos, many depicting the rape and torture of children by Henning and other foreign men—at times donning Nazi regalia.
Supreme Court clerk Chheang Vantha on Wednesday said Henning’s case was referred back to the Appeal Court because there was only enough evidence to support one of two charges endorsed by the lower court.
“We have sent this case back to the Appeal Court for further investigation because the Supreme Court found evidence only to support the charge of purchasing and procuring child prostitution,” Mr. Vantha said, but not human trafficking, with which Henning and two female Vietnamese accomplices—Cheng Thit You and Lim Ny—were also charged and sentenced to 17 and 15 years, respectively.
Henning’s lawyer, Peung Yok Hiep, on Wednesday reiterated her stance that her client was completely innocent.
“He had sex with the victims because they told him that they were adults,” Ms. Yok Hiep said. “He was not involved in making sex videos or human trafficking,” she claimed.
In 2007, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Henning with debauchery and human trafficking, and sentenced him to 28 years in prison. A second German man, Thomas Baron von Engelhardt, 49—who taught English at Pannasastra University and appears in many of the videos Henning made—was also charged with debauchery, and was sentenced to 12 years. Finally, three Vietnamese nationals—including the mother of two of the children discovered in the raid of Henning’s apartment—were charged with human trafficking and sentenced to between 15 and 17 years.
All five individuals appealed the municipal court’s decision, but in 2009, the Appeal Court upheld the sentences, only changing the charge of debauchery to purchasing and procuring child prostitution. Henning and two of his Vietnamese accomplices appealed the case further, and the Supreme Court heard their testimony on September 18.
Samleang Seila, country director of anti-pedophilia NGO Action pour les Enfants (APLE), said that while surprising, the Supreme Court’s decision to send Henning’s case back to the Appeal Court may prove to be an opportunity to increase the serial child rapist’s sentence.
“I see this as an opportunity for the Appeal Court to re-investigate [the case] and bring up a new charge…the production of child pornography,” Mr. Seila said.
Mr. Seila explained that because Henning was initially charged prior to the introduction of Cambodia’s Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation —which came into force in 2008— the Appeal Court had an opportunity to add “production of child pornography” to the two existing charges. According to the 2008 anti-human trafficking law, the production of child pornography carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
However, if the charges against Henning are reduced, Mr. Seila said, his case “will not be a deterrent at all to other sex offenders who would probably do the same.”
Mr. Seila also noted that while production and sale of child pornography is now banned, there is no law prohibiting the downloading or viewing of it.
“People will come here just to view, download and possess this material…. If the government doesn’t do anything about, I trust it will contribute to increase the sexual molestation of the kids in Cambodia,” he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Keo Thea, chief of Phnom Penh’s anti-human trafficking police, who led the raid on Henning’s apartment in 2006, on Wednesday said he was surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We collected lots of evidence, including witness testimonies and hard drives showing him having sex with children…. Prior to the raid, we also cooperated with German police to collect evidence,” said Lt. Col. Thea, who at the time described the raid as “very disturbing.”
“In my opinion, the German should be seriously punished,” he added.
According to APLE, which began investigating Henning in 2006, the German rarely left his apartment—located on Street 278 in Boeng Keng Kang 1 commune, a stretch popular among tourists and backpackers—but young girls were frequently escorted inside for three- to four-hour stretches by the Vietnamese nationals who would later be charged alongside Henning and Engelhardt.
APLE alerted police to the situation, who raided the apartment and “found an enormous amount of evidence, including multiple sex toys and utensils, books about pornography, a laptop and eight external hard disks, a camera and cassettes.”
Most of the hard drives seized, however, were password-protected or encrypted, so officers from Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office traveled to Phnom Penh to help unlock them. The first hard drive cracked contained 1,650 child-pornography videos, and all eight were eventually opened.
During the raid, Henning attempted to escape by jumping from his a second-story balcony, but smashed through electric lights decorating the front of the building and was hospitalized. Engelhardt was arrested after he was identified as one of the child rapists in Henning’s videos.
Both Germans are currently in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.
Officials at the German Embassy in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment.