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Cambodia gets tough on child sex trade

Arrests of foreigners for charges related to child prostitution have doubled since last year.

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Cambodian police this year have arrested at least 12 foreigners on charges of sexually abusing children – more than twice the amount snagged all of last year.

In addition to three Americans, they've caught four Germans, an elderly Swiss man, a Belgium national, and at least three Vietnamese nationals who helped the foreigners procure children.

For those who have long fought pedophilia here, the spike is actually cause for celebration. Most agree the increase from just five arrests last year probably has little to do with the prevalence of the crimes. Rather it's a function of increased political will, effort, and skill – encouraged by foreign governments like the US – on the part of Cambodia's police, who have for years been accused of allowing foreign pedophiles to operate with impunity.

"They are more reactive, more willing to work on this," says Beatrice Magnier, director of Action Pour Les Enfants, (APLE), a French nongovernmental organization that works to combat the child sex trade.

Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, says, "The authorities have increased their knowledge and skills after cooperation with NGOs. The implementation of the law gets better from one day to the next."

It's a trend that's been in the offing since at least 2000, when Cambodia first launched a major initiative funded by foreign donors aimed at targeting the exploitation of women and children and set up a hotline to receive tips. In 2002, Cambodia established a department in the Ministry of Interior specifically devoted to combating human trafficking and protecting at-risk juveniles.

But obstacles of apathy, corruption, and poverty prove to be constant challenges, NGO workers say. After all, many of the former leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime continue to live freely in Cambodia's northwestern provinces, unrepentant for crimes that killed 2 million Cambodians between the years 1975-1979. In Phnom Penh, angry mobs routinely beat thieves to death on the streets, because few trust the police to prosecute them. And corruption can often buy freedom for even the most heinous crimes.

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