• World

Pedophile Playground

5 minute read

Jon Keeler headed to a park near his home in Phnom Penh two months ago with a pocketful of candy and a camcorder. There he captured on video the trusting smiles of four Cambodian girls, all aged 8 to 10, sitting in a circle as they ate the sweets. The scene looks idyllicuntil one girl hesitantly lifts up her long skirt and puts her hands between her legs. The camera pans downward, focusing on the girl’s pre-pubescent genitals, then zooms up again to show her face and now-wavering smile. All four girls are shown in various poses and angles until one suddenly points off-camera and says timidly, Here come the police. The camera lurches, then the filming stops.The video was graphic enough to prompt police to press charges against Keeler, the 55-year-old director of a local English school. But in Cambodia, a land that has become a haven for international pedophiles, it remains to be seen whether the evidence will be sufficient to keep the British citizen in jail. He is due soon to be tried in Phnom Penh on charges of debauchery with a minor in a case that child advocates see as a test of how serious authorities are about preventing the exploitation of children. (If convicted, Keeler would face 10 to 20 years in prison.) Unlike in Thailand or the Philippines, pedophiles in Cambodia have had little to fear if caught. Among the handful of suspects arrested in the past few years, only one has served more than a few months in prison. (He was released after a year and still works in Phnom Penh as a doctor.) Cambodia is known as a place where it’s easy, says Olivier Perrais, regional director of End Child Prostitution and Trafficking. Alarmed by this unsavory image, authorities have made a show of cracking down on child-sex crimes. Christian Guth, a retired French policeman, is spearheading a program to teach local law-enforcement officials about stopping the trafficking of children. The government has launched a campaign called Sex TourismNo!; it’s also compiling a blacklist of suspected foreign sex-offenders for deportation. But child advocates say the campaigns will have little effect unless the country actually punishes pedophiles who are caught. It’s easy to escape the courts if you have power or money, says Yim Po, director of the Cambodian Committee to Protect Children’s Rights. If we don’t sentence these people, there’s no hope of stopping them.Cambodia’s problem goes beyond foreigners, though. Activists say sex tourists are tolerated in part because many locals find it acceptable to buy children for sex. The country’s brothels are filled with an estimated 20,000 child prostitutes. The youngestusually in their early teens but some as young as 10are sold to those wealthy enough to pay a premium. According to activists, buying a young virgin has become popular with certain rich and well-connected Cambodian men. New wealth and power, coupled with a fear of aids, is fueling the desire for younger and younger girls.The girls the men buy are often prisoners: as many as half may have been sold into the business. Sovannara, a 15-year-old with wide-set eyes and a soft voice, was looking for a part-time job when a woman took her to a brothel earlier this year. Before she realized what was happening, she had been sold and locked in a room. I cried and I cried, but the mama-san said she would have me beaten to death if I refused, she says. Sovannara spent the next month sleeping with five to seven men a day, for no money. She was rescued a few months later and is now in a shelter. But she remains despondent and is afraid to go back to her village. I don’t want to bring shame on my mother, she says. No one will want to marry me. I have no future.Even in kidnapping cases like Sovannara’s, arrests are rare because police and other officials are often paid off, or are customers themselves. Rescued sex workers report that many of their clients are uniformed military or police. Those cops who aren’t corrupt find it hard to take on the powerful forces behind the traffickers. And they are fighting entrenched attitudes as well: in 1996, Guth’s police students at an evidence-gathering seminar chuckled during a case study of a 14-year-old girl sold to a brothel. He realized most of the class didn’t view this as a serious crime. When I said under 16 was rape, they laughed because 14 to 16 is considered the best age in the brothels, Guth says. Given the difficulty of changing such attitudes, it’s not surprising that the government is focusing on making examples of foreigners like Keeler. Even if he is found innocent, he would be a prime candidate for deportation under the government’s new blacklist rule. The law allows for the expulsion of anyone even suspected of sex offenses. That has raised fears about suspects’ rights, but Mu Sochua, Minister of Women’s Affairs, says such flexibility is needed because of Cambodia’s weak courts. Maybe if some people are not convicted here they can be tried in their home countries, she says. The larger problem of child exploitation, however, cannot be deported so easily.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com