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Is Cambodia the criminal haven it once was?

Notorious pedophile Alexander Trofimov (R), a Russian businessman, is escorted by a prison security official at the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh in 2010. Photograph: Reuters

Alleged Japanese thief Kenji Nishizawa, arrested last week, is sitting in a holding cell across from Phnom Penh’s Ponchentong International Airport while Cambodian officials await formal extradition papers from his native Japan.

Swedish national Gottfrid Svartholm Warg got his walking papers eight days ago to return to Sweden to face a sentence handed down in absentia for his role in illegal file sharing, and convicted Swiss pedophile Hugo Leuthold will be booted out of the Kingdom at the end of the five-year prison sentence he received last Friday.

Despite the recent spate of high-profile arrests and deportations, analysts, attorneys and civil society groups are divided on whether the Kingdom is finally beginning to live down its reputation as a haven for the fugitives and criminals who have long been drawn to the country for its perceived culture of impunity.

According to Seila Samreang, country director of the child-protection NGO Action Pour les Enfants (APLE), deportations have become a powerful tool in fighting child sex abuse.

“We observed the same trend: that there are increasing numbers of deportations ordered by the courts,” he said, noting that the uptick began around 2010. “That is very much a positive development.

Before that, it was hard to get the court to deport convicted pedophiles, and we had to do a lot of work to get the government to do so.”

In the 16 cases against accused foreign sex offenders in which the NGO was involved in prosecuting in 2011, it successfully lobbied for deportation eight times. Of the nine such cases so far this year, five have ended in deportation — something that never happened over the course of 27 cases in 2007 and 2008.

Although the figures represent only a portion of total instances of child abuse, Samreang maintains deportations make a powerful point.

“That is a strong message that the impunity is ending, and Cambodia is trying to do its best to stop this problem of people coming to Cambodia and hiding or committing offences against children,” Samreang added.

Dun Vibol, a defence attorney who has represented everyone from bank robbers to the very pedophiles prosecuted by APLE, agrees that culture seems to be changing, though perhaps not for altruistic reasons.

“I think that Cambodia right now is leader of the ASEAN countries, so they want to show the world that they are against criminality, against offenders, against the gangsters,” he said, noting that he has recently seen “a lot more [deportations] than in the past”.

But Vibol doesn’t think this will change when Cambodia gives up the ASEAN chair.

“They want a stable country,” Vibol said, pointing out that stability engenders investment. “Because Cambodia wants to focus on economic growth, that’s why they want to crack down on the criminality.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan acknowledged the increase in deportations and extraditions, but rejected the notion that it was tied to economic benefits, calling it instead “a duty we have to do”.

“It’s international co-operation,” he said, adding that weeding out foreign criminals had a positive impact on “everything – not investment, everything”.

The Cambodian government has often come under fire from rights groups for alleged pay-for-play deportations, thanks to certain soft loans and aid packages coming immediately before or after high-profile arrests.

In 2009, for example, the government cancelled the asylum proceedings of 20 ethnic Uighurs, and summarily extradited them to China. Two days later, China agreed to US$1.2 billion in economic aid for Cambodia.

Last June, China granted Cambodia US$430 million in loans on the same day Cambodia arrested and initiated extradition proceedings against Patrick Devillers, the French architect wanted in China in relation to the Bo Xilai scandal. Devillers, however, was never formally extradited, choosing instead to go to China willingly to serve as a witness in the case.

Even more recently, Cambodian and Swedish officials denied insinuations that a US$57 million loan made on September 5 was related to the deportation of Pirate Bay founder Svartholm Warg five days later. Sweden said at the time that the loans were approved before the extradition proceedings began.

Siphan called the allegations untrue and unfair.

“Why don’t we accuse other countries of doing this?” he asked.

Siphan also suggested that the rise in deportations is simply an example of technology catching up to the government’s good intentions, with new passport-tracking devices making it easier to spot incoming criminals.

However, these devices didn’t help officials block the entry of Nishizawa, the accused Japanese thief, who entered the country in July despite having his passport invalidated by the Japanese government in 2011.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay noted Cambodia’s apparent laxness in visa enforcement.

“Especially people from developed countries, they can enter without any restrictions, so we are too open. People tend to abuse [that],” he said. “So we see criminals coming in and out.”

However, Mong Hay added, recent deportations are not indicative of a sea change in Cambodia’s culture of impunity, but rather the direct result of foreign governments’ influence.

“You see the pressure from those countries that are concerned, not from inside Cambodia,” he said, noting many deportations, such as that of the Uighurs, failed to follow due process of law.

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay expressed similar views on Cambodia’s attractiveness to fugitives.

“I think it has become normal for the fugitives or the criminals to find a country which is corrupt like Cambodia to hide themselves in,” he said.

“They know that they can get away because they can bribe the government officials. They are able to get away from the law by bribing the judge and prosecutors.”

He, too, pointed to the hands of outside actors driving the current spate of deportations.

“Let’s look at these cases,” Chhay said. “The related ministries aren’t doing their job. The countries are making requests and doing their own investigations. We never heard of one [case] where the government was able to do the job, at least in keeping the criminals out of the country.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart White at stuart.white@phnompenhpost.com

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