Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday sentenced the American director of a Christian orphanage to a year in prison for sexually abusing five underage Cambodian boys who were in his care, a charge the defendant maintained had been trumped up by a prominent child protection group.
Presiding judge Kim Rath Narin said defendant Daniel Stephen Johnson, 36, the former director of Hope Transitions, an unlicensed orphanage in Phnom Penh, was also ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, despite his assertion that the child protection organisation Action Pour les Enfants (APLE) had bribed the families of his accusers.
Narin added that Johnson had been charged with committing an “indecent act against a minor under 15”.
Colonel Lao Lin, of the Ministry of Interior’s Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Unit, said Johnson was arrested last December in collaboration with the FBI and APLE.
“He was arrested based on victims’ complaints,” he said.
An unnamed officer at the time said Johnson had been arrested after the FBI informed Cambodian police that he had been accused of five separate instances of raping a minor in the US.
The anti-human trafficking unit said, however, that Johnson would not be deported until he had been tried and punished for any crimes committed in Cambodia.
Though he declined to answer questions after yesterday’s hearing, Johnson provided reporters with a statement saying he was “disappointed” in the decision, accusing APLE of trumping up his case “to further build a name for them[selves]”, and calling for a “serious investigation” of the organisation.
“I have hundreds standing up for me, including the children. We have signed statements from the parent(s)/families of the children stating they were offered and/or received a bribe from those pushing this case,” the statement reads, noting that an appeal is imminent. “The same families have also written statements pleading for my release.”
APLE director Samleang Seila said yesterday that Johnson’s accusations were “simply not true”, and added that conversations on Johnson’s Facebook page indicated that he may have pressured all but one of his accusers to ultimately drop their complaints against him.
According to Seila, one of the five accusers dropped his complaint before the investigative stage. Another participated until the day of the hearing, when he sent his mother to tell the court that he would not appear, and asked to withdraw his accusation. Two others secured private representation and likewise dropped their complaints.
“If you look at the families’ situation, we don’t think they could pay this [legal] fee,” Seila said.
“Basically [there were] relationships and the pressure they had when they returned to their families; people were reaching out to them and their families to offer some support,” he added. “The four of them continued to have a relationship with people associated with Daniel Johnson, even after [his] NGO was brought down by the government.”
Seila added that the length of the sentence given to Johnson was insufficient.
“That is a very light sentence, the minimum sentence for that charge, so we are not happy with that sentence, and the fact that he did not get a deportation order after his sentence,” Seila said.
“That is making it harder for [Cambodia and the US] to work out an extradition agreement, but it is not impossible.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STUART WHITE