Claims of Abuse, Cover-Up at Famed Arts NGO

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A French national and longtime employee of the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang province is in a French prison awaiting trial on child sex charges for alleged crimes committed in Cambodia, according to a family member and a child protection group.

One victim, who says he was around 14 when he was first molested by the Frenchman, said in an interview on Friday that Phare kicked him out of the NGO’s circus troupe after he reported the abuse and paid him $600 to keep quiet—claims that Phare denied Sunday.

Jean-Christophe Sidoit held numerous positions at Phare—including interim director and board administrator—from 1999 until late 2013, when allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused the victim, a teenage circus artist visiting from abroad, and he was forced to cut official ties with the organization.

Anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE) took on the case after receiving a complaint from the young performer, and has since identified two more victims, according to APLE’s country director, Samleang Seila.

Sometime after the accusations arose, Mr. Sidoit left Cambodia for Bangladesh and later traveled to France, where he was arrested in July after French authorities took up the investigation under laws that allow the country’s citizens to be prosecuted at home for child sex crimes committed overseas.

“Jean-Christophe has been arrested the 22 July, in France,” his sister, Veronique Sidoit, said in an email last week.

“The situation is very difficult because French police believes all that says APPLE [sic] and then has been launched a process against my brother,” she said.

A spokesman for the French Embassy in Phnom Penh confirmed that Mr. Sidoit had been arrested but said he could not share more details about the case due to the ongoing judicial procedures in France.

Mr. Seila said French police became involved in 2014 when Mr. Sidoit “fled Cambodia,” and had identified possible victims beyond the foreign artist and those established by APLE.

“We were looking at three possible victims in Cambodia, but the investigation has spread to a larger group of young people,” he said. “It became a French investigation; we were helping French national police.”

Mr. Seila would not discuss the case further except to say that the two other victims APLE had identified were “still underage.”

Mr. Sidoit’s French lawyer, Catherine Mabille, did not respond to requests for comment. His former Cambodian lawyer, Peng Maneth, said she was no longer working on the case and declined to comment.

Phare Ponleu Selpak is an NGO that trains young Cambodians in the visual and performing arts in Battambang City, and has a well-known circus company that stages regular performances and often collaborates with other circus companies worldwide.

Soon after the allegations against him arose, Mr. Sidoit contacted The Cambodia Daily and claimed that he had been the victim of a malicious setup, and that all claims against him were fabricated. He helped arrange a meeting in July 2014 between a reporter and his alleged victim, who was chaperoned by a senior Phare staff member. The alleged victim said he had been “like a son” to Mr. Sidoit, living with him in Battambang for three years, and spoke of the Frenchman in glowing terms.

He said he had falsified the complaint against Mr. Sidoit out of anger and wanted to rescind it.

“I just talked about him because I was drunk. I saw that he liked other guys and purchased houses for them and I became jealous,” he said, adding that that those feelings snowballed into the formal complaint he filed with APLE.

“I felt that I was his son and he wasn’t taking care of me, so I was upset.”

However, in a conversation via Skype on Friday night, he said that at the time of the last interview, he had been under great pressure from Phare to retract his accusations—and was paid by his chaperone, Khuon Det, Phare’s director of performing arts, “to shut up.”

“With Det there, I cannot say anything about what happened,” he said, going on to recount Mr. Det’s words as he handed over $600 said to be from Mr. Sidoit.

“‘Here, we give you this money, you don’t say anything. The police come to you, you don’t say anything,’” he recalled Mr. Det saying.

“I could do nothing; there was no one to help me,” he said.

Phare’s executive director, Huot Dara, said Sunday that his organization had conducted its own investigation into the allegations against Mr. Sidoit and found nothing to substantiate them.

And the alleged victim’s claims that Mr. Det paid him to reverse his story had nothing to do with Phare, Mr. Dara said.

“About Det giving money, I don’t know, but it is not what Phare did,” he said. “That is nothing related to Phare.”

Mr. Dara said that when he was in Paris last month, he made a statement to police there outlining all that he knew about the case and Mr. Sidoit.

“You can see how inconsistent, how unstable, he [the alleged victim] is. One day he says Jean-Christophe did this, the next day he says he did not. It is not surprising that he changes his story every day,” he said.

“Jean-Christophe has been dismissed from all positions [at Phare] pending investigations, and we are ready to cooperate with any investigation,” he said. “I still presume his innocence until he is proven guilty.”

Contacted Sunday, Mr. Det rebuked suggestions that he had paid the foreigner to change his story.

“No, no, no. Money, I never give to him,” he said.

“Him saying [something] like this is to put Jean-Christophe in danger but he is young and he does not understand the danger. It was all about money; he wanted the money.”

“He is a person who make a lot of problems,” he added.

On Friday morning, before the alleged victim made his claims via Skype, Mr. Det confirmed that Mr. Sidoit worked at Phare in a variety of roles beginning in 1999, and said the abuse complaint was lodged against the Frenchman in retaliation for his refusal to give the foreign artist money to send back home.

“The problem comes from [the alleged victim] because he promised money to his mother to build a house and buy land,” Mr. Det said, refusing to say whether he believed the abuse claims were true.

Another of Mr. Sidoit’s alleged victims, according to emails exchanged with the suspect before he was arrested, is the 9-year-old son of another male circus performer he had “adopted” while working with Phare.

Mr. Det said on Friday that Mr. Sidoit had moved his “adopted” son, plus the man’s wife and three children, into his Battambang home several years ago.

“Jean-Christophe lived upstairs and the family lived downstairs,” he said. “He supported that family for a long time.”

The foreign artist, now 21, said on Friday that he had been practicing trampolining in his home country about eight years ago when he first met Mr. Sidoit, who was working for Unicef at the time. He said Mr. Sidoit brought him to Cambodia and connected him with Phare, where he trained and performed for about six years, suffering sexual abuse by the Frenchman all the while.

When he finally reported the abuse to APLE, he said, everything fell apart.

“[Phare] told me to get out. They ended my contract and I had to find somewhere else to live,” he said, adding that Phare helped him move to another country, where he continued his circus training. He is now back in his home country.

He said he only filed the complaint against Mr. Sidoit after he spilled out the story to an expatriate woman in Battambang, who urged him to report the abuse.

Speaking on Friday on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, the woman confirmed this account.

“[He] came to my place one night. He was drunk and he was crying. He told me that he was being sexually abused by Jean Christophe since he was 14,” she wrote in a Facebook message.

“After he told me his story I asked him to come back the next day, when he was sober. He came back and [he] told me the same thing—that he was being sexually abused by Jean-Christophe.”

She said she helped the teenager report the abuse to APLE on advice from the French Embassy.

Mr. Sidoit, who was in touch with The Cambodia Daily by email up until January, maintained that he was the target of a setup and said he was preparing to file complaints in both Cambodia and France against APLE and anyone else involved in the plot against him.

(Additional reporting by Van Roeun and Sek Odom)

blomberg@cambodiadaily.com

© 2015, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.

Source: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/claims-of-abuse-cover-up-at-famed-arts-ngo-103526/

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