U.S. court records detail felony child sex charges and outstanding warrants against a Cambodian-American man who was charged in Takeo province last week for alleged crimes against 11 local boys, putting the spotlight on the challenge authorities face in trying to prevent sex offenders from entering the country.
Cambodia, long known as a destination for child sex tourism, tries to keep foreign sex offenders out, but without other nations sharing information on convicted offenders’ travel plans, there’s not much authorities can do, officials say.
Tan Saravuth was charged last week for allegedly grooming, providing gifts to and molesting 11 boys aged 10 to 15 years old in Takeo province’s Tram Kak district, according to officials and an anti-pedophile NGO.
In 1996, Mr. Saravuth was charged with three counts of felony sexual abuse in the U.S. state of Oregon for allegedly touching the genitals of two boys, according to Oregon court records obtained by The Cambodia Daily.
In May 1996, Mr. Saravuth was accused by a Washington County grand jury of subjecting an 8-year-old boy “to sexual contact by touching his penis” in April of that year, according to an indictment.
In a separate case from September 1996, a Multnomah County grand jury charged Mr. Saravuth with committing two counts of the same sexual abuse crime “on or between January 1, 1995 and May 24, 1996.” The alleged victim was also a boy.
There are two outstanding warrants for Mr. Saravuth’s arrest related to the charges for failing to appear in court, according to the Oregon courts’ database.
In 1997, the year after he was charged and missed his U.S. court dates, Mr. Saravuth returned to Cambodia. He had been living in Takeo since 2002, according to the NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), which assisted in the investigation leading to his arrest earlier this month in Phnom Penh.
Police said he was born in Cambodia but immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee during the early 1980s, the Associated Press reported. Mr. Saravuth’s Cambodian ID card says he is 47, while the date of birth on his U.S. passport makes him 57, an APLE program director has said. Court records gave his year of birth as 1960, the same as his passport.
The Takeo Provincial Court charged Mr. Saravuth last Monday with purchase of child prostitution under the anti-human trafficking law, court spokesman Phan Sopheak said on Tuesday.
Last week, Lim Sokhorn, deputy head of court administration, said Mr. Saravuth was charged with procurement with regard to child prostitution, a different offense that carries the same sentence of seven to 15 years in prison.
Mr. Sopheak said on Tuesday that the court had received about 10 or 11 complaints against the suspect from the parents of the alleged victims. He added that Mr. Saravuth was being provisionally detained at the provincial prison while the investigation continued.
Without a conviction or official notice from the U.S., regardless of the regulations in place at the time Mr. Saravuth returned to Cambodia, it’s unlikely Cambodian authorities would have been aware of the child sexual abuse charges against him when he entered the country.
Keo Vannthan, spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s general department of immigration, said Cambodian authorities rely on information from other countries to catch convicted foreigners attempting to enter Cambodia.
“If someone committed crimes [in their country], if there are diplomatic channels, Interpol police and a request, we will make the arrest. Otherwise, we won’t know,” he said last week.
Most countries in the region do not have sex offender registries, including Cambodia, but some measures have been taken to restrict or regulate travel, such as through the blacklisting of convicted offenders, Snow White Smelser, regional program officer at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said in an email.
“Such lists are not publicized,” she said, adding that UNODC was discussing the establishment of a regional child sex offender database with all Asean nations, and that Cambodia was considering the establishment of a national registry.
The U.S., U.K. and Australia, among other nations, have “strict regulations and monitoring processes of their convicted citizens” and regularly notify authorities in the region of incoming offenders, Ms. Smelser said.
“Their national law enforcement agencies flag the convicted offender and notify authorities in the destination country of the travel plans of the convicted offender,” she said. “Some countries blacklist the flagged individual and deport them upon arrival.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that without official documentation showing that a convicted pedophile has committed a crime in another country, an individual is likely going to be permitted entry.
“They come with the passport. If they’re not written in the blacklist, they have the right to enter,” General Sopheak said.
The situation would be different if immigration officials are informed by other countries’ authorities, he said.
“We don’t welcome them if we know” that they were convicted of child abuse, Gen. Sopheak said, adding that some nations will share a convicted offender’s name and criminal record before their expected arrival.
The general said he was not sure whether the government was considering developing a sex offender registry, but called it “a good idea.”
Ms. Smelser, of UNODC, said Cambodian and regional border officers would soon be able to report and share information about traveling child sex offenders more efficiently.
In the next few weeks, UNODC will be equipping more than 70 multi-agency border liaison offices in Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam with smartphone apps that will allow officers to “report transnational crime incidents in real-time to each other in their local languages,” Ms. Smelser said.
Thirteen Cambodian border offices, plus the Phnom Penh headquarters, will receive the technology, she said.
Preventing foreign offenders from sexually abusing children is an international issue—not just Cambodia’s problem, said Maggie Eno, co-founder and director of the Sihanoukville-based child protection organization M’Lop Tapang.
Because different countries have different rules aimed at preventing convicted offenders from reoffending abroad, she said in an email last week, “It would be difficult for Cambodian authorities to know exactly who has offended in the past and who has not.”
(Additional reporting by Chhorn Phearun)