Sitting at a metal table in Siem Reap’s drab single-room Serious Crime Police office this week, the three-year-old spoke in quiet monosyllables.
Next to her, child support officer Som Vathna, from the Phnom Penh-based Child Protection Unit (CPU), was gently asking her questions, while sitting opposite, the unit’s legal assistant Sok Sopheak Monica took notes. The girl’s father was also there, watching.
Her wispy brown hair tied up in a bun and her tiny hands in her lap, the girl confirmed what her parents had already reported. They told the police that the day before she had been sexually assaulted by her
17-year-old cousin at their village about 17km outside Siem Reap.
“She was playing at her cousin’s house when he took her upstairs and tried to rape her,” Monica said after the interview. “When it was over, she ran home and told her mother.”
A partnership between the Cambodian Children’s Fund and the Cambodian National Police, the CPU was established to assist national and provincial officers in cases of serious assault, rape or homicide of minors in the hope that more child abuse offenders in the country could be brought to justice.
With the backing of the high-profile and well funded charity, the CPU has the cash, experience and resources that Cambodia’s chronically under-funded police lack.
Assistance ranges from little things such as providing phone cards and petrol money to training in advanced investigative skills and coordinating major operations.
A team from the CPU was in Siem Reap this week as part of a multi-agency task force brought together to arrest Long Ven, 33, who goes by the name “Waha”, the director of an unregistered English language school suspected of renting out pupils for sex in exchange for donations.
Ven was apprehended by plainclothes police at the Siem Reap FCC on Monday. Shortly afterwards, dozens of students under the age of 13 were interviewed by child support officers at the Underprivileged
Children School in Sambat Village, while nine older students were found at an apartment rented by Ven in Siem Reap. He has since been charged with procuring children for the purposes of prostitution.
The CPU’s operations manager, James McCabe, said it was unusual for his team to be investigating sex trafficking. “We’re involved because it’s a major operation that crosses provincial and international boundaries and requires additional resources,” said McCabe, who previously worked for Australia’s National Crime Authority. “But, while it’s horrible to say, child rape cases really are our core business.”
McCabe, 45, who started up the CPU, revealed that the three-year-old’s case was the unit’s 104th child rape investigation this year. Total cases number 118. The unit takes a “holistic approach to child rape, assault and homicide” from initial investigations through to victim support and prosecutions.
“Our main priority is to minimise trauma to children and the best way to do that is to get good physical evidence so the courts don’t have to rely on child testimony,” said McCabe. “We don’t want them having to go over their experience over and over again.”
Along with demonstrating advanced policing techniques on the job, the CPU, which employs 34 staff including three foreigners, also runs training courses.
“So we focus on training, capacity building and teaching investigative techniques,” he said.
So far it seems to be working. The CPU has an arrest rate of about 80 per cent and all 17 of the suspects who have gone to court have been found guilty. “The sentences have ranged from two to 20 years,” added McCabe.
At the headquarters of the Cambodian Children’s Fund in Phnom Penh, executive director Scott Neeson said the CPU was something of a departure from the charity’s usual projects, which have previously
focused on education, accommodation and health care for youngsters.
“In terms of vision, it had always made me very angry that there were so many cases of child rape you came across anecdotally, with so many families and children, and no one ever got charged. Money would change hands,” added Neeson, a former Hollywood film executive turned children’s rights advocate who founded the Cambodian Children’s Fund in 2004.
“I had a very stereotypical, judgemental view that it was about making money [for the police].
“It was when Jim [McCabe] presented the model [for the CPU] of what the issue really is [that I got on board] and it’s [that the police are] under-resourced and under-trained. As well the opportunity to not only bring about a higher arrest rate but also show a deterrent which has never been [there] before.”
The program should also see a long-term improvement in arrest rates. The CPU was like “capacity building on steroids”, said Neeson.
Eric Meldrum, a former British police force detective turned anti-exploitation consultant, is supportive of the work the CPU is doing as the Cambodian police are so under-resourced that even basic assistance will make a huge difference. “They’re doing work that really needs to be done,” said Meldrum. “They’re not doing really complex cases, so a little bit of money goes a long way.”
But not everyone is convinced that the police should be receiving outside assistance. Ear Sophal, the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, said ideally recurring costs such as petrol and food should be covered by the government. “Generally, I would say that it is not appropriate to dedicate resources for such expenses if one is interested in sustainability,” Sophal wrote in an email. “But if one is interested in expediency, then anything goes. You might as well pay the police to do its work if it leads to the results you want.
“Such partnerships are not unheard of, see for example [disgraced anti-trafficking crusader Somaly Mam’s NGO] AFESIP and its close association with the police. [But this is] problematic at times, to say the least.”
For many, it was attractive to think the ends justified the means. “But that is a slippery slope: What if only bribes resulted in crimes against children being solved?” said Sophal. “Would that be justifiable? The most important thing is putting an end to impunity, and that will result in crimes being solved fairly quickly.”
But Sophal’s criticisms were rejected by Neeson. “If it comes down to providing a couple of phone cards and some money for petrol, we’ll do it,” he said. “I feel like it encourages rather than replaces government investment.”
Meanwhile, the program has support from the highest levels in the police administration. Mok Chito, chief of the Interior Ministry’s Central Justice Department, said the CPU and the police were cooperating well. However, he talked down the impact of the CPU on arrest rates.
“We were still on duty before the CPU existed. Even though our investigating is still limited, we are able to work it out,” he said. “Even though [the police] could miss some sources, we were still able to solve about 70 per cent of cases.”
When there was previously a child murder case, police from the Ministry of Interior went down to work with provincial officers, which was expensive. “Sometimes we don’t have enough money [but] we still go down to work it out,” said Chito.
So far, one of the CPU’s biggest achievements has been the development of the Battambang police force. “We don’t need to go out with them on jobs any more, the standard of their investigations is so good now,” said McCabe.
If the success of Battambang can be replicated in other provinces, the CPU may be able to shut in six or seven years. “That’s how I measure our success,” said McCabe. “When we’re not needed any more.”
The difficulty in prosecuting child abuse in Cambodia is exacerbated by the ease with which perpetrators can pay their way out of rape charges. Read more here.
For a case of the Child Protection Unit in action click here.