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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Canadian sex tourists are among those exploiting Cambodia's most vulnerable

By Daphne Bramham, Postmedia News March 28, 2012 More U.S. bombs dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam War than fell on Europe during the Second World War. Genocide and civil war followed.

The terrible legacy is that Cambodia is one of poorest, most corrupt countries in the world.

There is no social safety net. No free schooling. A third of Cambodians survive on less than $1 a day.

With all of its problems, Cambodia is a choice destination for so-called sex tourists.

Donald Bakker and Kenneth Klassen - two of only five Canadians convicted under the Criminal Code's Section 7 "sex tourism" provisions - came here. So did Chris Neil, who was on Interpol's most-wanted list before being convicted in Bangkok for sexually abusing two underaged boys.

What sets Cambodia apart among so-called sex-tourist destinations is the age of the children, according to charitable organizations that rescue and counsel the survivors. Children as young as three have been, and continue to be, rescued; the youngest are almost always procured for foreigners.

Because raping children is normalized here, some experts say it creates situational or opportunistic pedophiles - men who might not dream of having sex with a child at home, but will try it here.

The Cambodian government has never updated its 2006 estimate of 30,000 children being commercially sexually exploited.

It's also never estimated how many children have been trafficked into or out of Cambodia, bound for brothels or other forced labour.

But last June, a special report on Cambodia by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed "deep concern" that thousands of children are exploited in prostitution. It also noted that "an alarming proportion of children are exposed to sexual violence and pornography."

Among the committee's other concerns: child sexual abusers are rarely prosecuted because of the widespread practice of out-of-court settlements paid to victims' families; limited action is taken against sex offenders and operators of brothels; and rehabilitation services and shelters for victims of sexual exploitation are almost all in the capital.

In the first nine months of 2011, 118 cases involving trafficking and children were heard in Phnom Penh municipal court.

More were heard in other tourist-friendly places such as Siem Reap, near the famous Angkor Wat, and the beach resort villages in and around Sihanoukville.

Part of what's pushing sex offenders into Cambodia is neighbouring Thailand's increased enforcement of child sexual abuse laws, according to western diplomatic sources and non-governmental groups such as World Vision and ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes).

And with six million Cambodians under the age of 18 - and 1.6 million under the age of five - there's a boundless supply of victims.

Things have changed since 2003, when Donald Bakker arrived from Vancouver and found his victims in the notorious pedophile paradise called Svay Pak, 11 kilometres from downtown Phnom Penh.

Little girls and boys are no longer openly marketed on Svay Pak's main street.

The trade has largely gone underground and online.

It's likely because of the Internet that Burnaby, B.C., art dealer Kenneth Klassen stepped off a plane a decade ago and within 48 hours had procured, assaulted and videotaped eight girls, the youngest of whom was eight.

Klassen, 59, pleaded guilty in 2010, only after failing in his attempt to have Canada's sex tourism law declared unconstitutional. The court upheld the law that says any Canadian committing sexual offences against children outside Canada is deemed to have committed that offence in Canada.

In sentencing Klassen to 11 years in jail - less than a year each for abusing six Colombian girls and eight Cambodian girls - B.C. Supreme Court Justice Austin Cullen described what Klassen had done as "a gross violation of the natural imperative to protect children."

Earlier, Bakker had received seven years in prison; two years for a horrifically violent assault on a Vancouver woman and five for abusing seven Cambodian girls, the youngest of whom was only seven. Bakker gets out of jail in June.

Compare that with the sentence given ex-U.S. Marine Michael Pepe, who abused seven Cambodian girls. A California court sentenced Pepe to 110 years in prison.

And while Canada's sex tourism law is well-crafted, Klassen was the last person charged under it.

Another Canadian, Orville Mader, was arrested at Vancouver airport in 2007 after a worldwide manhunt. Mader had fled home from Thailand carrying only his laptop to avoid arrest on charges of sexually abusing a seven-year-old boy.

A judge set Mader free on bail, but placed restrictions on him, while police investigated and Crown prosecutors determined whether to lay sex tourism charges.

Mader was convicted in absentia in Thailand. But in November 2010, police and B.C. prosecutors allowed Mader's conditions to lapse. The Crown had decided that the evidence didn't meet Canadian standards.

Mader was free. Whether he got his passport back, Canadian officials won't say, citing privacy laws.

Then there's the case of Ernest Fenwick MacIntosh. Last year, the 67-year-old from Cape Breton had his conviction on 17 charges of gross indecency and indecent assault of six Canadian boys overturned because it had taken so long to get to court. Their allegations dated back to the 1970s and by the time the victims came forward in 1995, MacIntosh was in India.

Twice, the Canadian passport office failed to revoke his passport. Finally, in 2006, Canada requested MacIntosh's extradition from India. That was the same year the Toronto Star reported that two Indian men had alleged MacIntosh assaulted them while they were boys living in an orphanage.

"I think there's a need for a more aggressive stand with respect to the acquisition and analysis of intelligence and a better co-ordinated approach to (sex tourism)," Insp. Sergio Pasin of the Canadian Police Centre for Missing and Exploited Children said in a phone interview.

Pasin is in the process of formulating a national strategy that is likely to focus mainly on men who access child pornography online.

"In my view, these are the individuals you really need to look at because they're grooming and luring and then they . . . have the potential for transitioning from the online offender to the hands-on offender. So then the next phase you have to look at is whether they have the potential to travel and have they travelled in the past? Where have they gone? And so on."

Governments such as the U.S., Australia and Britain have made efforts to prosecute sex tourists.

In the United States, Operation Predator links police agencies with the border security agency, and allows them to partner with foreign governments in child pornography and sex tourism investigations.

One recent investigation involved setting up a website for sex tourists that had Canada as its destination. The two-year project, which ended in March 2011, resulted in the conviction of two Germans and two Americans.

Operation Twisted Traveller, conducted in Cambodia over two years with the French-based non-profit group Action Pour Les Enfants, resulted in the 2009 arrests of three Americans who had previous convictions for sexually abusing children.

Earlier this month, Britain closed what was described by the international child protection group ECPAT as "the three-day loophole," which allowed registered sex offenders to leave the country for up to three days without notifying police. Now they must notify authorities of all foreign travel plans.

Earlier this year, the Australian Agency for International Development began Project Childhood, a $7.5-million, three-year program involving the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, Interpol and World Vision. Working with police and courts to increase enforcement and with community leaders to educate children and their families, the project aims to reduce sexual exploitation of children in tourism in the Mekong Delta region including Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.

Pushed by western countries and NGOs - and because of a growing fear that "good" tourists are avoiding it - Thailand has increased enforcement of its child exploitation laws. But that increased enforcement has resulted in sexual predators seeking out countries such as Cambodia where the commitment to prosecuting and jailing child sex offenders is far from certain.

Last year, three foreign pedophiles were granted royal pardons at the government's request.

Among those pardoned was Alexander Trofimov.

Also known as Stanislav Molodyakov, Trofimov is wanted by Interpol for having allegedly raped six girls under the age of 10 before he fled Russia for Sihanoukville, Cambodia's coastal resort town.

There, the 44-year-old executive director of Koh Puos Investment Group negotiated a deal to build a $300-million resort.

But while he was doing that, Trofimov also sexually abused 15 under-aged girls, including a mute 13-year-old.

Trofimov's sentence was initially 15 years, but that was reduced to eight years in 2010. Then, in May 2011, Trofimov was pardoned after having served half of the reduced sentence.

Freed in Cambodia, he remains on Interpol's most-wanted list. The Cambodian government has not responded to a request from 14 international children's rights organizations to deport him to Russia.

Pedophiles most often escape arrest. Some do their time, get pardons and disappear to other countries where they'll likely reoffend.

But the victims are never free. "They'll always have scars," says Sue Taylor, who has counselled dozens of survivors since coming to Cambodia in 2005. Among the survivors are Donald Bakker's victims.

The girls refused a request to be interviewed.

"They want to put it behind them. They don't want to be reminded of the past and they don't want to be labelled as one of Bakker's girls," says Taylor, who works for Hagar International, an Australia-based NGO.

Even though the abuse occurred more than a decade ago, all but one of the girls is still a minor. That's how young they were when Bakker raped them in tiny rooms in a filthy brothel in Svay Pak, a dusty village outside Phnom Penh that's a notorious pedophile paradise.

As part of their recovery, the girls have all completed school. One or more of them may qualify for university scholarships; others have completed training programs in administration, child care and hairdressing.

By the end of 2011, all had moved back to Svay Pak to live with their families or foster families even though, as Taylor says, their families were complicit in selling them into brothels.

"Our choice would not be to have them there. But we have to believe that with what they've learned about empowerment and resilience, they will be able to make the right decisions."

Taylor hopes these young women have learned enough to have fulfilling lives, jobs and relationships. She hopes that if they choose to have families, they will be good mothers and wives.

But, she says, "I worry that they're naive and that they're really not out of danger. If they hit hard times, I don't know if they'd go back (to a brothel). I used to be so idealistic. Now, I realize that you have to let them go, just as you have to let your own children go and you hope that they remember some of the things you taught them."

What makes it all the more troubling, says Taylor, is that images of one of the girls recently showed up on a pornographic website. She's also seen images of other sexually exploited children on kiddie porn videos sold for a couple of bucks along the roadside in Phnom Penh.

"It's just sick that this can go on and on," she says.

"How can the survivors really ever escape?"

Vancouver Sun

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