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Undercover underused: NGO

Two prostitutes in Phnom Penh wait for business outside a brothel in 1999
Two prostitutes in Phnom Penh wait for business outside a brothel in 1999. Police officials have said that ambiguity surrounds the legality of undercover investigations into such establishments. AFP

Undercover underused: NGO

Cambodia hopes to legalise undercover investigative techniques – like covert surveillance and officers posing as criminals, which until now have fallen into a murky legal grey area – by next year.

At a workshop in the capital yesterday, law enforcement officials and representatives of human rights NGO International Justice Mission discussed the current legal ambiguity surrounding undercover policing.

“The law is neutral on the issue, but the desire is that we will gain clarity on when and how these investigations can take place,” said Lisa Slavovsky, acting field office director at IJM.

Cambodia is one of few countries in the world that lacks an explicit legal framework to allow police to investigate and gather evidence undercover.

Though officers have conducted undercover stings, they say they have infrequently done so since 2010, when changes to the Penal Code made their legality tenuous at best.

“Every day we do [investigations] … but only according to the court’s prosecutor,” said Keo Thea, head of municipal anti-human trafficking police. “We are afraid if we conduct undercover investigations it is illegal.”

IJM, however, argues that the need for such techniques is becoming increasingly pressing.

IJM’s fieldwork reports show trafficking and sexual exploitation crimes have largely been removed from the open, due in part to better law enforcement.

“You have to ask, is it because the crime has stopped or the crime has changed?” Slavovsky said.

As street-based pimping is replaced with more sophisticated underground networks and off-site crimes, IJM says police need to be equipped with definitive authority to collect undercover evidence.

“Foreign pedophiles … know that they can come here and solicit with impunity right now because this kind of evidence can’t be gathered against them,” said John Roberts, IJM’s director of investigations. “If they start to find out … that the next person they solicit might actually be an undercover police officer, they’re going to be much more careful, even deterred from coming here to prey upon the children of Cambodia.”

But granting police greater authority also provokes the need for greater accountability.

“Given the record of police abuses, I’m quite sceptical of how they would use the information and show proper restraint,” said Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “I don’t think we should be giving police more power until they can demonstrate greater self-governance.”

Presenters at the workshop argued that every country has police that abuse power, but the minority of offences shouldn’t stop investigations following clearly defined protocols, especially when criminal networks exploit legal gaps.

“Undercover investigative authority is both useful and necessary to fight human trafficking,” said Roberts. “IJM, Winrock International and the US Embassy have committed to training and equipping police units next year to use undercover investigative authority effectively, to use it ethically and to use it proactively.”

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