The Phnom Penh Municipal Court this week convicted a French journalist on charges of sex trafficking in a case rights monitors say is retribution for a documentary film about Cambodia’s sex tourism trade that painted the country in a bad light.
Daniel Lainé was convicted in absentia – he lives in France – to seven years in prison for sex trafficking. The trial, held Tuesday, was actually a repeat of the first one, in 2010, when Lainé received the same sentence, also in absentia. His lawyers successfully lodged a petition challenging the validity of the trial and the court heard it again on January 10.
Rights group Adhoc, which has been monitoring the case, challenged the decision and called it a threat to the freedom of the press in Cambodia.
“The report I got was that there was absolutely no new evidence against Mr Lainé, and the witness who testified spoke about things which were not related to trafficking charges, she basically accused Mr Lainé of filming her without her consent,” said Nicolas Agostini, a technical assistant with the rights group.
Agostini said the woman, who appeared in his 2003 film that premiered on French television, was one of three who filed the original complaint against Lainé that led to the conviction. In 2006, Lainé returned to Cambodia and was briefly detained by the Ministry of Interior on the merits of a separate complaint by a Frenchman who also appeared in the film and complained that his face, blurred out, was nevertheless recognised by relatives.
According to a summary of the events provided by Adhoc, Lainé’s passport was then confiscated, an obstacle he dodged by fleeing across the Thai border en route to France. Cambodia requested that Interpol issue a warrant for Lainé, and he was arrested in 2012 in an undisclosed country, before being sent back to France in circumstances that remain unclear.
Calls to the Ministry of Interior and National Police were not returned yesterday. The French Embassy is monitoring the case, said Nicolas Baudouin, a public information officer.
“The sentence handed down by the municipal tribunal of Phnom Penh against Mr. Lainé is raising questions. We have noted that Mr. Lainé’s lawyers are planning to appeal the verdict. We hope that due process for appeal will be safeguarded by the Cambodian authorities.”
In recent years, scores of journalists have been hauled before a judge on charges of incitement or defamation, and media monitors have described the courts as a new tool of censorship. In the past year alone, Cambodia has seen its ranking on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index drop 26 places – according to an index released yesterday citing: “authoritarianism and censorship… on the increase”.
But allegations of sex trafficking being levelled at journalists has been hitherto unheard of.
Seila Samleang, the director of Action Pour Les Enfants, an organisation working to prevent sexual abuse and trafficking, said he had no file on Lainé and that he had never heard of him.
To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at [email protected]