Graham Cleghorn.victim of injustice in Cambodia?

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Far Eastern Economic Review
March 25 2004

Madness in Their Method
By Bronwyn Sloan

The government is cracking down on foreign paedophiles. It's being helped by local aid groups, but their methods are causing concern


Cambodia, with it's lax law enforcement, corrupt officials and largely young and poor population, has long been a favourite destination for foreign paedophiles. Scores have been arrested since the country opened its doors to the outside world in 1991 after two decades of strife and turmoil, but most have been released without trial or escaped with light fines or short jail terms.

Top Cambodian politicians now put a priority on eradicating the scourge and police have arrested about a dozen suspected foreign paedophiles in the past four months. Local non-governmental organizations are helping the authorities tackle the problem, but REVIEW investigations indicate some of these groups may be operating outside legal and ethical boundaries in a bid to get results and obtain essential foreign funding.

One such group, the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Women's Crisis Centre (CWCC) has received publicity at home and abroad over the past four years for its key role in gathering evidence and witnesses in the prosecutions of several foreign residents in Siem Reap, the tourist gateway to the ancient Angkor temples in northwest Cambodia.

In January 2003, Australian teachers Bart Lauwaert and Clinton Betterridge were convicted of debauchery (the Cambodian charge for paedophilia) and sentenced respectively to 20 years and 10 years in jail--the latter in absentia. Last month, New Zealand tour guide Graham Cleghorn was convicted of raping five girls aged 15-17 and jailed for 20 years (the age of consent in Cambodia is 15). Swiss hotelier Rudolph Knuchel was last year acquitted of debauchery for lack of evidence.

"If they did not do anything wrong, we could not arrest them," insists Ket Nuon, director of the Siem Reap branch of the CWCC, which like most other Cambodian NGOs depends on foreign funding to keep going. In 2002-03, it received about $520,000 in funds from a range of foreign donors, including governments, according to documents at the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, which facilitates information exchange between NGOs.

But critics have serious misgivings about some of the CWCC's methods, including the way it gathers evidence from potential witnesses, holds out the promise of financial compensation to victims and pays for help. The agency denies that its methods are illegal or unethical.

Take the case of Thouk Sam Ang. The 11-year-old claims that she was held prisoner for nearly two weeks by the CWCC and put under great pressure to testify that 57-year-old Cleghorn, a family friend, had sexually abused her. "They asked me to say that Graham had touched me. They asked again and again," Thouk claims in an interview with the REVIEW. She denies that she was touched or sexually abused, and this was borne out by medical testing. "They said that Graham and [his Cambodian wife] Toeur had already confessed . . . They said I should sue him and take all his money," adds Thouk.

The girl, who says she tried unsuccessfully to escape, also says she was told she would not see her mother again unless she agreed to give evidence. "I was very scared. I have nightmares," she says. She was only released when her mother came looking for her, and never appeared in court.

The REVIEW heard similar allegations from 15-year-old Pol Mela. "They asked, 'Did Graham rape you?' I said Graham did not do anything . . . They thought we were lying," she says, adding that she was also held against her will for about two weeks. She did not testify in court. Hean Ton, the mother of a 13-year-old who refused to testify against Cleghorn, alleges the NGO promised she would be awarded money if she could persuade her daughter to give evidence that she had been sexually abused.

Girls cited as witnesses in the case against Lauwaert and Betterridge also say the promise of money was a factor in persuading them to take the stand, and now complain that they never received any.

Ket, director of the CWCC's Siem Reap branch, does not dispute that Thouk Sam Ang was held against her will and without notifying her parents for the full period. But she claims the young girl, and the others that Cleghorn was suspected of molesting, were brought to the CWCC by the police as part of the investigation process.


The aid worker also says her organization did indeed question the girls repeatedly and also challenged their statements if they denied being abused. But this was to ensure they were not lying or trying to protect anyone, she adds. The practice, moreover, appears to be common. "The keeping of children like this--many NGOs do it, but I don't know whether they do it in a lawful way or not," says lawyer Huon Chundy of the independent Juvenile Litigation Project.

Some of these underage girls who would not give evidence against Cleghorn say they wanted to testify on his behalf, but the trial judge ruled that their evidence was inadmissible. George Cooper of Legal Aid of Cambodia says that on purely legal grounds, in a trial based almost entirely on the testimonial evidence of children, the testimony of girls complaining that they were coached to say one thing could "cast a negative light on all testimony" and lead to acquittal on appeal--provided their evidence was ruled admissible.

The CWCC's Ket also says the CWCC advises victims to seek compensation--Cleghorn was ordered to pay $2,000 to each of the five girls he was found guilty of raping--but says it does not tell them how much to ask for. "You can't blame the girls," says Cleghorn, who plans to appeal. "That is 40 years' wages. They are all from very poor families," he adds during a prison interview.

The CWCC official also says that the organization helps police during their investigations by paying for small expenses. She denies any impropriety and says this association has no bearing on the prosecutions pushed by the CWCC. "If police go to arrest the suspect, they ask for the petrol or lunch [because] they do not have much money. This is the way we work with them," she says, adding: "There is no need to call it bribery; it is just a matter of helping facilitate the work."

Pierre Legros, director of the anti-human-trafficking organization Afesip, takes issue with organizations that pay for police services. He says NGOs should not pay police anything at all as it breeds corruption and a priority system for handling cases. Kim Morokath, a programme officer with Denmark's DanChurchAid, has no problem with small amounts being paid but suggests that at least one organization in northwest Cambodia involved in the same kind of work as CWCC was going too far to get results. The aid worker says a police officer in Banteay Meanchey province told her that an organization, which she would not identify, offered them $200 for helping to investigate a human-trafficking case. "So when he gets a case, he gives that case to that organization," she says.

There is also criticism about the detention of potential witnesses in sex cases involving minors. Psychologist Don Thomson, a professor at Australia's Charles Sturt University, is concerned about the detention and questioning of potential child witnesses. He says this sort of treatment can contaminate the witnesses, making a fair trial impossible. It also has the potential to irreparably damage the children and young adults involved.

Afesip's Legros also worries that growing donor interest in the kind of work that NGOs like CWCC are involved in--combating human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children--has the potential to put pressure on NGOs to skirt ethical and legal boundaries in a bid to produce results.

These concerns are echoed by Naly Pilorge, director of the Licadho human-rights organization: "I would like to see a change in general NGO attitude so they are not just focused on conviction, but also on victims." But the CWCC firmly denies suggestions that it might put results before justice in a bid to impress donors. "Funding is a by-product," says Ket. "We just want to help people."