After another light sentence was handed down for child sexual abuse, child protection NGOs expressed alarm that the new anti-human trafficking law is resulting in pedophiles getting less jail time.
Frenchman David Makhout was sentenced to 18 months in prison, 10 of them suspended, and told to pay $500 in compensation by the Sihanoukville Municipal Court on Tuesday after being convicted of committing an indecent act against an 8-year-old girl he had fostered.
According to the victim’s lawyer, Peng Maneth of the anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants, a medical examination concluding that the 8-year-old had been raped was rejected by presiding Judge Taing Sunlay.
The judge had rejected the medical evidence because the examination was conducted two months after the alleged rape had occurred, Peng Maneth said.
“The sentence is not strong enough,” she said.
Peng Maneth said Makhout had asked the victim’s parents repeatedly for permission to adopt their child before eventually receiving permission for the adoption at the commune level. Makhout, who is in his mid-30s, moved into a rented house alone with the victim before he was arrested April 13.
Peng Maneth said they were still considering whether to ask Sihanoukville’s Prosecutor Meas Sopheak to appeal the sentence. Meas Sopheak could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
APLE Country Director Seila Samleang said the organization was particularly unhappy that so much of the sentence imposed on Makhout, whom he described as a dangerous pedophile, had been suspended.
“[Makhout’s actions] show he is determined to continue to have relations with children, and we are concerned that he will continue to do this,” he said.
Judge Taing Sunlay said Wednesday that the court had not charged Makhout with rape as the documents sent to him by the investigating judge related to indecency charges only.
“I believe the sentence is a strong one because under the new anti-trafficking law, the prison term for an indecent act is between one and three years,” he said, adding that under Article 43 of the law, the criminal could be sentenced for a probation period and a prison term based on the evidence presented.
“If my sentence is not satisfactory, [the prosecution] can appeal it,” Taing Sunlay added.
The new anti-trafficking law is causing huge problems, Seila Samleang said, as it puts the onus on the prosecution to prove that actual penetrative sex had taken place in order to secure the more serious child rape charge, as opposed to indecency, which carries a lighter sentence. Medical examinations of victims tend to be very inconsistent in Cambodia, he said.
“There are few experts, examinations are careless and [experts] deny evidence as they do not want to have to give evidence in court,” he added.
A lawyer for Makhout, Chan Vannak, said his client was unlikely to appeal the sentence imposed on him.
“I am not sure…but it is my private idea that he will not,” he said.
According to a representative of the anti-pedophile group International Justice Mission, who asked that he not be named, the problems with the new anti-trafficking law were less about the law itself than its implementation.
“[The law] has not been disseminated and explained to judges in the provinces. They are taking individual elements of it and applying them, without understanding the whole content of the law,” the IJM official said.
According to the representative, the Ministry of Justice was aware that some overly light sentences had been imposed on a couple of high-profile pedophile cases and were moving to address the issue.
The Makhout case comes swiftly on the heels of the decision by the Appeal Court last month to reduce the sentence of jailed Belgian pedophile Philippe Dessart from 18 years to three for abusing a 14-year-old boy.
At the end of July, Nikita Belov walked free from the Sihanoukville Court after just six months in prison when the court suspended most of his three-year sentence for abusing three girls, one of them just 7 years old.
“I would agree that some of these sentences have been too light,” the IJM representative said.
Justice Ministry Undersecretary of State Chan Sotheavy admitted Wednesday that the specifics of the new anti-trafficking law were not fully understood by all judges, but he said the ministry was providing training courses for their judges to bring them up to speed.
“Some judges are only following a small part of the law,” she said. “We are now preparing a notice to advise all judges in how to enforce [all aspects of it].”