Alain Filippe Berutti, a convicted pedophile serving time in a Cambodian prison,
is many things to many people. He is a source of shame to Italian communities, a
parent's worst nightmare, a warning to the world's pedophiles who have come to lawless,
wild Cambodia for years seeking gratification that they can no longer operate with
For each side - pedophiles and the larger community who cannot tolerate pedophilia
- he is spine chilling, whether for his words or thoughts, or for the fact that he
was lured by the prospect of cheap sex in an impoverished country and has been one
of the few who has paid the price.
On July 16, 2002, the now 32-year-old electrician from Milan was sentenced to the
harshest prison term ever meted out to a foreigner at that time for debauchery (the
Cambodian name for a pedophilia-related charge) after being convicted of sexually
abusing four male street children aged between 11 and 14. He was arrested in broad
daylight, naked in the reeds that line the Tonle Sap, the boys naked with him.
He has now served a quarter of his sentence, but will prison change him? He says
it will not.
Berruti shuffles into the interview room of Prey Sar prison, just outside Phnom Penh.
He is slightly built, painfully thin, his hair cropped, the beginnings of a beard.
After just a month inside, he was angry, in shock, and distrustful. After two and
a half years, he has accepted his fate and says he is happy. He wants to tell his
story. In court he confounded journalists with his openness and his inability to
grasp the gap between his behavior and normality.
After his arrest, he explained, patiently at first and then angrily, that his victims
were "street boys, and they are prostitutes". He reveled in recalling his
last days of freedom, triumphant in his declaration that never in his life had he
met such "super extra-available boys". Then reality set in.
"There are 31 people in my cell," he laments. "You have nothing here
if you do not have money." About his current predicament, he says: "I will
never understand, but I have stopped being angry."
Berutti begins to tell his story. He had visited Thailand and the Philippines, both
well-known shopping grounds for pedophiles, before coming to Cambodia. He says he
had never thought of committing any sexual acts with children in either country.
In Thailand, he felt alienated. The Philippines frightened him.
"At six o'clock, when it gets dark, they change. People you thought were friends
But in Cambodia, with its smiling people, its poverty and its reputation as a hedonistic
heaven where money can reputedly buy you everything including impunity, there was
temptation. Cambodia was fateful for Alain Filippe Berutti. He says he visited once,
then felt its draw again when he had left. He returned.
"I never do this before I come here. In those places [Thailand and the Philippines]
it is not always in front of you, so close like it is here. Here, you walk down the
street and you see boys stand up and call 'Hello, sleep boy'."
He embarked on what he calls his "experiment" soon after arriving in the
country for the second time and settling down in a room at the Capitol Guesthouse
in downtown Phnom Penh.
From there, he walked the kilometer or so to the riverfront each afternoon and sat
and waited for the scores of street children who frequent that busy stretch, many
of whom live on less than a dollar a day, scraping a precarious existence through
begging, shining shoes or selling snacks or newspapers on commission.
"At 4pm they arrive. Many kinds of boys, quiet, but with interest," Berutti
says. He waited for them on the river promenade across the road from the busy bar
strip at the heart of the riverfront that includes the Foreign Correspondents' Club,
directly opposite Wagon Wheel restaurant.
He says he bought them dinner. He befriended them. He gave them small amounts of
money and learned snippets of Khmer from them.
"But I never gave them cigarettes or alcohol. I hate that. Never anything like
that from me! Forget it!"
Now, Berutti felt, it was quid pro quo.
The first phrase he learned in Khmer was 'Pram roi, taup moi'-five hundred riel for
"I said, 'Why should I give you money for nothing? I want to enjoy you'. Again
they ask for money. I have some affection, because they are so young, so little -
from ten to fifteen years old. I said, 'Could I have from you one kiss?', and after
less than twenty seconds, one agrees. He said, 'Come on, I need the money'."
In Berutti's mind, though, it was not a matter of him exploiting them, but the other
way around. He does not see himself as the corruptor but the corrupted, and he cannot
completely forgive them for allowing their poverty to tempt him.
"They were never impolite. I don't want to say they are bad. But they destroyed
my life. I said to them, 'If you want more money, what can you do for me?'"
They took just hours to think of an answer, he says. He describes the moment. One
boy, braver or more desperate than the rest, came to him, and, staring over the river,
without looking him in the eye, uttered a single word. "Sleep."
Berutti had won. But he would have to take his prize during the day. He shudders
when he talks about the dark. He is scared of the dark.
"I am sure all bad things happen at night. Storms, fights, murders..."
He took a group of boys across the river about 2pm, away from the crowded city. More
than one, he says, because they were frightened to be alone with him.
Then 29 years old, he says he was sharply conscious of the milestone of the big Three-O
approaching. Berutti says this was the catalyst that changed his life. Whether he
had fantasized about these acts before, whether he had actually offended before,
he took a step in Cambodia that day to reclaim his youth that most people would recoil
from. He speaks about it with an almost vampiric zeal.
"I have lost something about youngness. I am not so young. Not so new. I wanted
to taste the quality of muscle, of legs, chest, skin. I never had sex with them.
I just watched, with myself. But afterwards, I realized that no, no, no possible
- to go into a new life, born again, young and feeling fresh. This experience was
a kind of realization of the quality of the meat of the young. During the experiment
I got the chance to taste young meat again, but afterwards, what remained? The feeling
was gone, and I was left with just myself, my body again. Then I understood. To touch
someone's beauty, something beautiful, does not mean I can become like it."
But despite his resolutions, he could not help himself. His need to "taste youth"
tortured him, and he repeated his experiment soon after. And this time, police from
the sex crime bureau of the Ministry of Interior arrested him, naked in the reeds
with four boys under 15 - the legal age of consent in Cambodia. He was sentenced
to ten years jail under the debauchery law.
The crime scene pictures show Berutti with a resigned look of bemusement, the boys
huddled in some reeds behind him. Then, the enormity of that moment had not yet sunk
in for the young Italian.
"You can change sides of a sidewalk and your whole life can change in one minute,"
he says. "Ten years! I had no feeling at the time of my arrest, but in the court,
when they said that, I was very surprised. I am not a pedophile. I never collect
pictures of young boys. I hate pedophiles, but technically, I suppose..."
He is vehement in insisting he was caught during his first phase of "experiments"
in this realm, despite being tempted and acting on his temptations at least twice
in Cambodia. He suddenly grows angry at the suggestion he feels has been made in
the press that he is homosexual. In his mind he is merely covetous. The distinction
is one he feels is very important.
"I would never do this to a young girl. Never! Absolutely! A boy is a man. A
boy is like me. It is to taste a new body. I like women. I have girlfriends before.
Two times I felt disappointment in my life (from women in relationships). I have
traditional values. I take the example of my mother when I am growing up. My experiment
with boys doesn't mean I am changed. It does not make me gay."
He wants people to understand that. He wants his mother to understand that. He misses
her and says she is the person he loves most in the world. But when she told him
he must change, he says, he could not. Not even for her.
"I told her 'This is what I am. I cannot change. It is too late. Accept me.
Accept it'," he says, two and a half years after the experiment that landed
him in jail.
"I miss my mother, and I am so, so sorry that I hurt her, but I do not carry
Italy with me. I do not want to go back. I love Cambodia."
Above all, when he first arrived at Prey Sar, in every muscle of his face there was
anguish and incomprehension. He is still appealing the sentence, but the years stretch
solidly before him. An appeal in the overloaded Cambodian court system can take years,
and his grounds for an appeal - that the boys were consensual because he paid them
three dollars each - is unlikely to hold up well against the fact of their legal
age. Two and a half years later, there is still self pity, but still no concept that
what he has admitted to is wrong. Instead, he says he has made himself a home.
"In Italy, in Europe, on this charge? I would be afraid. Here they accept me.
I have made friends. I respect these people so much. They are the best people I have
ever met - so much better than me. I could almost say I am happy," he says.
"There are all kinds of levels of criminals here, from chicken thieves to top
kidnappers. I leave them to live without complication."
There is no therapy to be had in a Cambodian prison. Indeed, the jury is out among
experts as to whether therapy even helps. Child molesters in general, but pedophiles
in particular, are notorious recidivists, doomed to continue their cycle of inflicting
pain again and again. Temptation, then, awaits Berutti on the outside once more -
perhaps even stronger than before. A decade more of youth will almost certainly slip
by him here without the opportunity to taste it.
But many of the boys he made his victims and their friends are still working selling
papers on the streets of the city. For most, their cycle of poverty seems unlikely
to be broken despite the efforts of NGOs to place them in training programs or broaden
their horizons. They remain vulnerable.
Their families say they are landless, and their children's own children will probably
grow up with the riverfront and the streets as their homes. Some of the boys say
they still sell their bodies when the opportunity arises. To earn a few dollars for
sex takes just hours or minutes. A pittance from selling newspapers and shoe shines
takes a day. They want to eat and provide for their families, and with the money
they can earn, sniffing glue or smoking methamphetamines dulls the pain.
Walking free and seeing the river again is the thing that used to drive Berutti through
the days. He still dreams of freedom, but the drive is not so strong now. He says
he is happy that he has enough to eat, and sunshine. There is never the terror of
darkness and aloneness inside Prey Sar.
"The only place that is dark here is inside the toilet room at night, but the
other inmates are all so afraid of ghosts. If one person gets up in the night, four
or five will come running to go too, because they do not want to be alone with the
ghosts. That is the only darkness here. It is funny, no?" he laughs.
Years ago he talked about a dream he had, when he finally found freedom. It is one
he still remembers, but where once he spoke about it with anguish, now it is just
"I dream I will marry with a Filipino girl when I get out. Oh, why didn't I
do this already? They are the best women in the world!" he says.