Phnom Penh Perspective:
by Bronwyn Sloan
When I was a young cadet journalist in the late 1980's, I was given the opportunity to sit in on a court case, which became known as the Mr Bubbles case, under the guidance of one of Australia's foremost court reporters, Max Blenkin. A man called Tony Deren and his wife were accused of child abuse. She had been running a childcare center. He was accused of using that to gain access to pre-school aged children and molest them.
To me, the testimonial evidence seemed overwhelming. There were more than 50 counts of sexual abuse to be answered. Details were leaked to the press, including the fact that Deren had been investigated on similar charges when the couple lived in Papua New Guinea. In the current case, very young children and their parents were prepared to give very detailed accounts of Deren's alleged attacks on them, dressed as a clown, in hotel room baths.
But the case was thrown out at the committal stage for a very simple reason. The judge ruled that well meaning social workers and inexperienced police, convinced that Deren, his wife and two childcare workers were guilty, had coerced stories from the children and potentially imbued them with memories of things that had never happened. He also accepted expert witness opinion that parents had formed panic-stricken groups and swapped ever escalating details of ever more bizarre sexual assaults on their children. The testimonies were so contaminated that they were inadmissible.
The Derens walked free, but their life was in tatters. And, even more sadly, a number of children were sent back into the world believing they had been abused and their attacker had gone unpunished.
Spin the clock forward to Cambodia, 2003. An Australian television current affairs program hires me to go to Siem Reap to try to coax two Australians, former flatmates, accused of pedophilia to consent to a television interview. I had met one of them, Bart Lauwaert, a few times before in the very small expat community that was Cambodia in the late 1990's. The other man, Clinton Betterridge, I had never met. The prison guards made tea, sat me in a garden inside the prison ground, and sent the men out to see me separately.
Both men refused a television interview. But Betterridge, in particular, interested me. I have interviewed numerous pedophiles in my time here. To say pedophilia does not exist here in Cambodia is wrong. To say the problem of foreigners preying on children in an impoverished country with a notoriously weak judicial system and endemic corruption does not exist would be a lie. But Betterridge, through his panic, was making sense. He was claiming he was framed, he was swearing he was innocent, he was giving me details and names and addresses. And he was begging me to investigate.
Back in Siem Reap, I walked into a local restaurant fresh from the jail and met another man, Graham Cleghorn. I got to talking, and he told me he would be the next to be arrested. He claimed child protection groups were operating with impunity, taking advantage of an unassailable cause and a free reign from donors anxious to earn headlines to justify their expenditure. He said one group had singled him out as a child molester, and now it was trying to manufacture evidence to make the theory fit. He too gave me names and addresses. He too urged me to investigate.
In a remote part of the province, a little girl called Sok told my translator her story. She and her mother claimed she had been abducted by a non-government organization without her mother's consent, held against her will in a center and told that the group already knew she had been abused by Cleghorn, that others had already confessed, that she should confess, that she would not see her mother again unless she told the truth.\
This was a full year before Cleghorn's arrest. Sok denied she had been molested. Her mother finally found out where she was and says a court order helped her release her nine-year-old girl. The same little girl was later to be taken again by the same group under the same circumstances, this time for two weeks, this time after Cleghorn's arrest. She says this time she was subjected to a virginity test by a male doctor without her mother's knowledge or presence. She was only released after that test (a cursory but invasive test which would not be considered conclusive in a Western court) said she was a virgin and she refused to say she had been fondled or molested in any other way. Her mother says she was promised compensation money from the court if she coerced her daughter to admit she had been abused by the foreigner. Other mothers in a village more that 40 kilometers away told the same story.
The stories told by families of girls and women against Lauwaert and Betterridge told similar stories, although in their case, initially at least, they had agreed they had been raped. The police and the non-government organization had brought one girl back to the village after she filed a complaint. The rest of the village was told that she was going to court and would win the case the equivalent of offering money in the compensation-orientated Cambodian court system. Families said others were then offered the same opportunity if they put their daughters forward.
No one questioned whether the foreigners would cough up. In Cambodia, most people believe foreigners are rich. Betterridge skipped bail before trial and was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail. Lauwaert appeared and was given 20 years.
When the girls later recanted at appeal, one girl was arrested. Another fled before police, which the villagers claim were accompanied by officials from the CWCC, could detain her. The CWCC and police deny the organization prompted the arrest. They did not deny arresting the girl, a day before the court announced it had turned down the appeal. The same day as the court made its announcement, the Australian government declared it would not extradite Betterridge, who had spent years in custody in Australia after skipping bail. It gave its reasons as concern that he would not receive natural justice in Cambodia, and gave credence to his claims that he had been tortured while in custody in an attempt to extract a confession. The girl was released after several hours of interrogation.
Cleghorn was convicted of rape in 2004 and sentenced to 20 years, largely on the testimonial evidence of five adult maids, two of whom he had sacked prior to their complaint. The girls who claimed they had been abducted by the non-government organization but had refused to press charges despite a mixture of promises of money and threats against their family were not allowed to testify. Cleghorn claimed the women he sacked had also been having affairs with soldiers in a nearby military camp. He claimed they had been approached on numerous occasions prior to his arrest by the women's organization, which had promised them the equivalent of 40 years wages in compensation and free legal support if they testified they had been raped. One of the women appeared in court obviously pregnant (to her Khmer husband) claiming she was single and would never find a partner because of the damage to her reputation Cleghorn's rapes had done.
In March 2004 I published a story in the Dow Jones publication entitled "Madness In Their Methods", detailing what I felt to be flaws in the way some organizations were pursuing sex cases, and using the cases in Siem Reap, all brought by the one organization the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC) to illustrate what I believed to be the problems. The CWCC held a press conference in Phnom Penh which featured some of the victims in a glass case. It accused me of being an advocate of pedophiles. It also accused me of targeting it unfairly. In this case it might have a point the CWCC is not alone in using these methods. Many organizations in Cambodia build cases in this way.
Many of the people they convict are indeed guilty. No one is denying this. But my point, and one that gets lost in the emotive hype these organizations use to cover up technically unethical methods, is two-fold; some men who are convicted might be innocent, and the methods being used to catch these people, guilty or innocent, border on illegal, certainly would not stand up in a developed court system, and are detrimental to the children.
Flash forward to the riverfront in Phnom Penh. We are speaking to a teenager who has appeared in more than one sex case against a foreigner, all of which were brought by one non-government organization (not the CWCC), and the latest of which was last week. He sells newspapers, but supplements his income by working as a prostitute when the opportunity arises.
My translator asks him how old he is. "I'm 16, but tell the foreigner I am 14," he says in Khmer. The age of consent in Cambodia is 15. He tells how he targets foreigners he thinks are looking for young or under aged sex. Sometimes, he says, he calls a non-government organization himself. They know he is 16, but they turn a blind eye. Sometimes, he claims, he co-opts other, younger children and places them in dangerous situations to help the organization build a stronger case. Does the organization know about this, we ask. "They must," he says. I ask if he has ever received counseling or whether the organizations have worked with him and his family to try to turn his life around. He shakes his head and asks what counseling is.
Another boy is boasting about how he put a foreigner behind bars. "I waited until he was out, and then let myself into his hotel room with some young kids and we took a bunch of photos," he says. "He promised me money, and then he didn't give me any. He deserved it." This boy is addicted to methamphetamines. He lost his virginity long before he started using drugs. He is 18 now and has been prostituting himself for at least four years. "The Angkar (the Cambodian word for the organization) pays us to go to court," he claims.
A third riverfront boy has heard that one foreigner is paying tuition fees for a number of his piers, but not him. "Pay for me to go to school or I will tell the Angkar you rape me," he threatens. He might be as old as 14. He looks perhaps 12.
Back in Siem Reap, I ask the CWCC who their child psychologist is. We have finished a long interview during which an official has admitted to giving police gifts, holding suspected victims together for long periods pretrial to help them with their stories and "for their own protection" and occasionally taking children without their parent's knowledge or consent if they believe the parent might be obstructive or acting with someone they believe to be an abuser. They are the guardians, they say. Their intentions are good. And how else, they ask, are they meant to operate in a corrupt system? But despite their good intentions and their long record of assisting women and children in difficulties, they admit they do not have a child psychologist. They do not even employ a psychologist. One woman there has done some workshops, they say. This, too, is not a fault common to just the CWCC. Despite the number of children organizations say are abused in Cambodia each year, despite the number of high profile convictions, none of the main organizations bringing the convictions extract testimony with the aid of a trained psychologist, and there is no counseling for victims after the trial is over.
Srei Mon was the first to bring the case against Lauwaert and Betterridge. She would be almost 17 now. At the same time she made allegations against the two foreigners, she also accused a relative of molesting her since the age of around eight. Her father was certified mentally ill many years before she went to work for foreigners. After the convictions, she, like the others, found herself unemployed. No foreigner wants to employ a girl who has just testified against her former employers. And the compensation never came.
The CWCC did not act on these allegations. After Srei Mon testified, she was returned to her family. Soon after it became apparent that no compensation would be forthcoming, her father burned down the family home.
The second to last time I asked after her, her brother said she had run away and was working at a karaoke parlor a common front for prostitution. Ironically, according to her brother, the karaoke parlor was located on the doorstep of another child protection agency. The last time I asked after Srei Mon, she had disappeared. Her brother said some of the family believed she was dead. Others hoped she had found work, perhaps even as a prostitute, in Poi Pet, the border crossing notorious as a human trafficking port.
Not because they wanted her to be a prostitute, he stressed, but because they would rather face that reality than the prospect she was dead. The family claimed the CWCC had not continued support after the guilty verdict against the two foreigners. The CWCC said the family had not asked.
At trial, Lauwaert denied knowing four of the women and girls who testified against him. "I have met six of them before why would I lie about never having seen the other four?" he said. Before he left town, Betterridge also claimed not to know at least one legal-aged woman against him who had initially claimed rape but later changed to say she had been forced to perform oral sex on him after tests indicated she was still a virgin. I spoke to her shortly after the conviction. "Did Betterridge do something bad you?" I asked. She said she thought so. Her mother said she knew so. And then, while her mother railed against Betterridge, the teen began to cry. "I just don't know anymore," she sobbed. Her mother spoke about how the girl had become an outcast in the village, how she would never now marry in a society where chastity is more than a virtue for a female it is a requirement.
Some months after that, when the compensation never came, the girl changed her mind. She now says Betterridge never touched her and blames herself for bad luck which came to the village after the convictions bad luck like the father of Srei Mon torching the family home, like the parent of another alleged victim dying, like the fact that the compensation never came, and some of the families who had bought things they could never have afforded before were subjected to the indignity of these things being repossessed, and the indignity of debt. I ask the CWCC if it has tapes of the interviews with the witnesses. That cost, it says, is not in the budget, and police in Cambodia rely on verbal testimony. There are no records of its investigative methods to disprove the claims by the victims that they were coerced.
Respected child psychologist Stephen Ceci answers an email I send. He stresses that he is not speculating on the guilt or innocence of the men involved in any cases, and that his focus is on the children and young adults. In his work and that of colleague Maggie Bruck, most prominently in the book, 'Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony', he has outlined a number of factors which will taint young people's testimony. All of them are interview techniques the CWCC has freely admitted to using in the interests of extracting testimony in the interests, it says, of putting perpetrators behind bars.
They include interviewer bias -- when the interviewer (parent, therapist, investigator) believes he or she knows what happened and attempts to get the child to confirm it, ignoring anything the child says that does not conform with the interviewer's bias and encouraging anything that does. The CWCC freely admits it believed the men to be guilty before it interviewed the children and women.
Another risk factor to both the children and the truth of their testimony Ceci outlines is repeated questions "children, especially younger children, are more likely to change their answers when asked the same yes or no question repeated during a single interview. Answers from children to yes or no questions repeated over several interviews are likely to become more firm and confident, regardless of whether they are correct". I can still hear the girl against Betterridge crying. The organization says it often keeps the witnesses together in isolation pre-trial and questions them repeatedly to make sure they are primed for the rather brutal Cambodian court system, where they will stand beside the man they are accusing. And the little girl, Sok, says; "They asked me over and over where did he touch you. I said he didn't touch me. They didn't believe me."
Peer pressure -- children's reports can be influenced by the application of peer pressure ('Johnny told me all about it, and he said you were there, too.') Studies also show that children can incorporate into their own memories experiences that their peers told them about, but which they did not witness themselves.
Another girl who says she was taken to testify against Cleghorn echoes Sok "They told us all the others had already confessed. They told us we should confess too," she says. The mothers claim they were told to pressure the girls to "confess" or face prosecution themselves for protecting Cleghorn. Both girls refused to testify. Others, however, did.
"Based on the information you sent me," Ceci writes in a 2003 email, "it is my opinion that the children who are subjected to such strong familial pressures and institutional prepping are at risk for providing inaccurate testimony about their alleged abuse. Note that I am not saying that the children were never molested by the defendants--that is clearly something I cannot know. Rather, I am saying that the sort of strong pressures you described are known to create significant risks of tainted testimony. I suspect that in American jurisdictions that have so-called "taint hearings" to determine the reliability of children's statements before they are considered to be admissable, such children would often be excluded from testifying unless there were…independent evidence to back up their statements. Sadly, we know from research that if you pursue children as relentlessly and urgently as these children appear to be pursued, some of them can even end up believing statements that they originally realized were untrue."
At the end of the day, I cannot make a judgment on the guilt or innocence of any of these men. Not even a judge could, given the pressure these children and adolescence have been put under to extract the testimony testimony that must be seen as tainted. Add to that the trauma many of these kids went through before they even made the allegations, and the continuing hell many of their lives are long after the people they accuse are behind bars and the scene is a desolate one of repeated abuse, lost lives, children damaged by the system saving them as much as the men accused of molesting them.
Some governments, such as the US and now the British, have begun bringing their trained agents in to supervise cases well before the prosecution stage. This is partly to ensure that the accused are properly investigated and a case that will stand up in any court, not just the fledgling and flawed Cambodian system, is built. I hope, too, it is an attempt to prevent harm to the children who must stand against the accused in that court and face their monsters.
Yes, pedophilia and abuse happen in Cambodia and we need people to fight it. But where is the help for those victims after the damage is done? Would you want your child to be subjected to some of the "no pain no gain" techniques alleged here? And isn't the point of jailing child abusers to prevent abuse? Hurting children, even with the very best of intentions, cannot be tolerated.
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