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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sex tourists face US law

Sex tourists face US law

Sex tourists face US law

First 'Twisted Travellers' nabbed in effort to stop US child molesters.

Three US nationals have become the first to be charged for child sex crimes under an international law-enforcement operation targeting Americans who travel to Cambodia - decribed by one US official as "the world's ground zero for child sex tourists" - to have sex with children.

Arrested by Cambodian police in February, they were due to appear in a US federal court Tuesday. Although they were also charged in Cambodia, the sentences they face if convicted in the US are much more severe: Thirty years for each of their victims, meaning they could spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

The US ambassador to Cambodia, Carol Rodley, said Tuesday that the charges - brought under the US PROTECT Act, which came into effect in 2003 and introduced harsher penalties for predatory crimes involving children - would be a "powerful deterrent" to sex tourists. "These new charges clearly demonstrate to the Cambodian people that the United States will not tolerate this type of abuse," she said.

"These cases not only signal to the Cambodian victims our commitment to justice, but ... act as a powerful deterrent for those individuals who are contemplating travelling to Cambodia to engage in illegal sexual activity with minors."

Ronald Gerard Boyajian, 49, and Erik Leonardus Peeters, 41, both from California, and Jack Louis Sporich, 75, of Arizona - were all previously convicted of sex offences in the US. According to court affidavits, Boyajian is suspected of molesting a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl, and Peeters is accused of sexually abusing at least three Cambodian boys, whom he paid between US$5 and $10. Sporich is suspected of molesting at least one underage Cambodian boy. He would drive his motorcycle through city streets and drop money to lure children, authorities said.

The men were charged in absentia by a federal court earlier this year under an international law-enforcement operation dubbed Twisted Traveller.

The initiative, by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice, specifically targets American sex offenders who travel to Cambodia to exploit children.

Local NGOs Action Pour Les Enfants and the International Justice Mission (IJM) were instrumental in the arrests. Speaking to the Post on Tuesday, Patrick Stayton, field office director for IJM Cambodia, urged Cambodia to rethink the penalties for sex crimes against children.

Referring to Michael Pepe, a paedophile convicted on seven counts of sexually abusing minors in Cambodia and sentenced in the US last year to more than 200 years, Stayton said: "Major risk drives [paedophiles] to be the predators they are, but as you increase the punishment ranges, that changes the fear equation. They become more afraid to commit those acts, and that's what we want."

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