US citizen James Curtis Parks was arrested in a lunch-time raid at the Puncak Hotel in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district Wednesday, when police allegedly found him with a naked 14-year-old prostitute.
Parks, a freelance photographer based in the US state of Hawaii, denied any wrongdoing Thursday, saying he was teaching the girl Buddhist meditation and English when the police raided his room.
Tourism Police Chief Rien Vicheth, however, said that didn’t explain why both neither Parks nor the girl wore clothes. The girl told police that she had sex with Parks several times for money, Rien Vicheth said. Parks, 57, who has visited Cambodia several times, had just returned to Cambodia Tuesday.
Child rights activists say such cases are becoming increasingly common as Cambodia opens up to the world, courting tourists and their money. Cambodia’s image as a sex tour destination is firmly established, activists say, in part because it is protected by high-ranking government officials.
But it’s an image government leaders don’t want, said Prime Minister Hun Sen, who told an international tourism conference in Siem Reap on Tuesday that Cambodia must guard against sex tourism as it strives to develop its tourism industry.
He said the government is working hard to promote the nation’s cultural and religious heritage, and that running blindly after tourist dollars could lead to “the development of sex tourism, which totally runs counter to the objectives of cultural and natural tourism.”
The topic is one other poor countries struggle with, knowing that pedophiles increasingly patrol the Internet looking for societies that don’t adequately protect their children.
At the conference, Piyasiri Hettiarachchi of the Ceylon Tourist Board said that Sri Lanka is determined to fight. Of four foreign pedophiles arrested there in the past two years, he said, three were convicted and are serving time in Sri Lanka.
They face seven years to life in prison, harsh fines, must compensate their victims, and will not be deported to serve out their terms in their home countries, he said.
Every visitor to Sri Lanka receives a small pamphlet, published by the Tourist Board, explaining cultural differences and urging tourists to respect local customs, such as dressing modestly and removing shoes before entering temples.
The pamphlet also clearly outlines the criminal penalties for sexual misbehavior, including child abuse, prostitution and pornography.
“There is no developing country where sex tourism is not taking place,” he said. Poor countries are so eager for tourist dollars that they don’t always stop to consider why some of those people are visiting, he said.
Other poor countries don’t yet have the resources to fend off the threat, in part because they don’t have much tourism. “We would like to take preventive measures, but we cannot,” said Nelson Paulias of the East New Britain Tourism Bureau in Papua New Guinea.
“It is difficult to police visits by people from other countries, when we would like to welcome everyone,” he said. “We do not have the problem [of child sex tourism] yet, but we will be on the alert.”
Police Chief Rien Vicheth said the girl with Parks when he was arrested became a prostitute in November after an older woman coaxed her away from selling bread on a Phnom Penh street corner.
The girl was working for two women who ran prostitutes out of Martini’s nightclub, a popular club for foreigners in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district. The girl said the women introduced her to Parks in November, and that she had slept with him on several occasions receiving $30 each time.
Neither pimp has been arrested, said Rien Vicheth. He said an investigation is ongoing.
Parks said he was trying to get the girl to give up prostitution.
“She didn’t like doing what she was doing and she wanted another job,” said Parks, adding he came to Cambodia to send the girl to school.
He said his arrest was trumped up because the girl’s pimps did not want him interfering. “I really wanted to help. I’m a good man… I’m not a bad man. I’m not a pedophile,” Parks said. He said he asked the girl’s pimps if she was over 18 years of age.
Parks said he never had sex with the girl. He then added that he was not the only foreigner interested in young Cambodian girls.
“You know you can go down to Martini’s at night and you can see all of these girls leaving with people. Sometimes leaving in United Nations cars.”
Parks will be sent to Phnom Penh Municipal Court today on charges of having sex with a minor under 16 years old. Court Prosecutor Ngeth Sarath, who took part in the raid, said Parks could face between 10 to 20 years in jail.
A representative of the US Embassy, who spent more than an hour with Parks, would not comment on the case, but told officials the embassy would not interfere.
Local child protection organizations have long criticized foreign embassies in Phnom Penh for interfering in cases involving their citizens.
Although police have arrested dozens of foreign nationals on charges concerning the sexual abuse of children, only one is currently serving a jail sentence.
John Keeler, 54, of Britain, is serving a three-year sentence for videotaping four girls, aged 8 and 10 years old, in sexually explicit poses. He is currently in Kandal provincial hospital after fasting in jail to protest what he calls his unfair treatment at the hands of Cambodian courts.
Speaking from his hospital room Monday, Keeler criticized the British Embassy in Phnom Penh for not pressuring the Cambodian government to have him released, noting that other foreign sex offenders have escaped prosecution for more serious crimes.
(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)