Prosecution of international sex tourists proves cumbersome
TORONTO — Authorities are reviewing ways of prosecuting socalled “sex tourists” after the arrest in Thailand of Christopher Paul Neil — a 32-year-old Canadian who became the object of an international manhunt after German police authorities deciphered computer images of him purportedly sexually abusing children as young as 6.
Paul Gillespie, who ran the Toronto police’s child-exploitation unit until 2006, said the practice of traveling to poverty-stricken countries to procure sex with children “is one of the most underreported and disgusting crimes.”
“Men, typically from Western nations, regularly travel to sex-tourism destinations, where they can find vulnerable targets,” he said.
Now vice chairman of the Toronto-based Kids Internet Safety Alliance, Mr. Gillespie said: “It’s embarrassing that we don’t know how big the problem is in Canada because no one has studied it.”
Various agencies and officials agreed there has been no comprehensive study of sex tourism anywhere, despite a growing realization in the 1990s that the practice amounted to global criminal activity.
The United States passed legislation in 1994 and again in 2003 making it a crime for American citizens and residents to exploit underage sex in foreign countries even if it is not a crime in those countries. In 1997, Canada passed its own law, and now 32 countries have similar laws against sex tourism.
Increasingly, destination countries like Thailand, Costa Rica, Cambodia and Brazil are trying to stop the crime. So far, 113 of 164 countries have signed an international protocol to end human trafficking.
In 2004, the humanitarian group World Vision, together with the State Department, sponsored a series of billboard ads in Costa Rica, Thailand and Cambodia showing the eyes of a child and the caption, “I am not a tourist attraction. It’s a crime to make me one.”
Yet while Americans and Cana- dians are estimated to account for 25 percent of all international sex tourists, Canada has had only one successful prosecution.
The United States, with dedicated resources at the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been somewhat more diligent.
According to Justice Department officer Jaclyn Lesch, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents made 95 arrests, achieved 66 indictments and got 61 convictions in sex-tourism cases from 1999 to 2006.
But with an estimated 1 million to 2 million children a year forced into sexual servitude in countries around the world, the number of prosecutions remains small.
Carol S. Morency, an assistant general counsel with the Canadian Justice Department, said Canada also has helped other countries to prosecute the crime. But, she conceded, Canada hasn’t devoted as much manpower to the problem as the United States. Typically, Canadian diplomatic missions abroad have only one Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer to handle all criminal investigations.
Mr. Neil’s arrest also raised the question of whether he can or will be charged as a sex tourist if he ever returns to Canada. Ms. Morency said Canadian law prohibits someone being charged a second time in Canada for a crime already prosecuted in a foreign country, but if other victims are identified, Mr. Paul could be charged for those crimes.
The prosecution and investigation of such crimes differs from country to country. In Canada, the maximum penalty for the crime is 14 years, while in the U.S. it carries a potential 30-year prison term per offense. Some European and Asian countries require tourist-industry workers to report suspicions of child-sex tourism.
But authorities say the crime is not easy to prosecute. Aside from the need to cooperate with authorities in a foreign country, there is psychological ambiguity that infects people on both sides, said Carole Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT (USA), a child protection advocacy group.
The overwhelmingly male purchasers of child sex tell themselves they are not pedophiles and that the post-pubescent teens they exploit are just “young-looking girls,” she said. Others think they are providing money to the poor, she said, rather than abusing them because they are poor.
“It’s also not fair to say this is a problem only in Costa Rica or Cambodia. I’m in New York City, and I can see a place to buy kids from here, and I’ve seen places in [Washington,] D.C.,” she said.
Indeed, the rationale of “just sex” goes beyond the buyers to law enforcement, lawyers and government officials in many countries.
Alan Young, a law professor at Toronto’s York University, considers the extraterritorial application of Canadian law on Canadians having underage sex abroad is a form of “moral entrepreneurship.” If a Canadian abuses children in Thailand, he said, “let him stand trial there.”
“If they don’t consider it a serious offense there, why should we?” Mr. Young said.
Another problem is varying ageof-consent laws, which in many countries is 14 or 15 years old. Law enforcement officials are less likely to intervene when local laws are not violated. According to Free The Children International, 30 percent of Vietnam’s 185,000 prostitutes are thought to be under age 16.
While Canada only has had one conviction to date, in March, a 56year-old Vancouver man was charged with having sex with 17 underage girls in Cambodia, Colombia and the Philippines. Sex tourists, like regular tourists, often bring back photo and video souvenirs, and when Vancouver airport investigators found Kenneth Robert Klassen’s collection of child sex abuse, his home was searched. There, police found video clips of his purported sex crimes with 92 girls in three countries.
Mr. Klassen’s arrest was made with the help of the FBI and police agencies in the three affected countries, said Vancouver Royal Canadian Mounted Police Cpl. Pierre Lemaitre and involved up to 20 officers in Canada.
Thai police officers escorted Christopher Paul Neil, a Canadian schoolteacher suspected of being a sex tourist, in Bangkok on Oct. 20 for interrogation. Accused of sexually abusing Asian boys as young as 6 years old, the 32-year-old was finally arrested after a three-year international manhunt.