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Children walk past the vacant Hope Transitions office building in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district
Children walk past the vacant Hope Transitions office building in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. Hong Menea

Slipping through the cracks

US national Daniel Stephen Johnson was transferred to Prey Sar prison yesterday after being charged on Saturday over the alleged rape of five underage boys – residents of the orphanage he ran without interference from authorities for several months.

According to Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor Seang Sok, Johnson – who was the director of NGO Hope Transitions – was charged with indecent acts with a minor under 15 years old, a charge he will have to face in Cambodia before he can be repatriated to the US to face similar charges there.

Although a sub-decree requires all NGOs to register with the government, some – like Johnson’s – never do. But even as a draft NGO law languishes in parliament, some civil society members yesterday said that it would do little to prevent government ministries’ overlapping jurisdiction over NGOs from letting some organisations slip through the cracks, even ones run by foreign fugitives.

According to Chhith Sam Ath, director of the NGO Forum, local NGOs must register with the Ministry of Interior, while foreign-based NGOs must register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even then, NGOs must obtain a memorandum of understanding from what he termed an “aligned ministry”, or one that deals with the issue being addressed by the NGO.

“In Cambodia now, who enforces what, I think that seems to be the issue.… The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior – sometimes I don’t think they know who is in charge of what,” Sam Ath said, adding that enforcement “is the responsibility of local authorities” as well.

As if to underscore that point, Meas Sarim, deputy director general of NGO administration at the Interior Ministry, said yesterday that he was unaware of Johnson’s case, and directed questions to the Foreign Ministry. While the Interior Ministry oversees all NGOs, he said, organisations can be licensed by either it or the Foreign Ministry.

Koy Kuong, Foreign Ministry spokesman, could not be reached yesterday.

Meanwhile, local police in Meanchey district’s Boeung Tompun commune, where Hope Transitions was located, said that while they had been aware of the organisation’s work, they had simply assumed it was properly licensed.

“We did not ask him [about it], because we saw his organisation helping the poor, and there were also many children staying with it. What’s more, we thought that his organisation maybe had obtained permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs or Ministry of Interior … so we did not go to inspect it,” said commune police chief Tep Bora, adding that his department had been “very surprised” when Johnson was busted.

District governor Krouch Chamroeun said he hadn’t heard of the organisation until it was shut down, and did “not know clearly whether his organisation was authorised by my district authorities or not”.

Cambodia’s draft NGO law – which has been stalled for years amid heavy criticism from civil society – would still require foreign- and locally based NGOs to register through different ministries, but would require filings to be presented on their leaders’ backgrounds.

“In the NGO draft law, we have an article that states that all NGOs in Cambodia must submit the profiles of their management people, and [they must] have no criminal records,” said the MoI’s Sarim.

While background checks should be mandatory, said Seila Samleang, director of the child protection group Action Pour les Enfants, the NGO law still had “its pros and cons”.

“It’s getting more common now for people with sexual abuse backgrounds to go into a normal setting to gain trust or authority over their victims,” Samleang said, while declining to comment in detail on the law.

Some civil society members yesterday saw more cons than pros in the law, which also contains provisions requiring NGOs to report their activities to the government.

“I think without this law, they can enforce [the rules] if they want to,” NGO Forum’s Sam Ath said. “The reason we don’t want the law is because we don’t want the pressure from the government.”

Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc, voiced a similar opinion, and said that the “profiles” of NGO leaders required under the law would have done little to catch someone like Johnson.

“When he registers, he will not put that he has been charged by the court in the US,” he said.

“NGOs could have a lot of problems if they have to [report] everything to the [Interior Ministry]. [Reporting] the finances is no problem, but [not] the activities,” Saray added, noting that the government could theoretically antagonise organisations that examine corruption and wrongdoing. “Sometimes we are not of the same opinion of the government.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA

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