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Trial draws attention to child sex tourism

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Bangkok, Thailand

A Frenchman who had sex with an 11-year-old girl while on holiday in Thailand was convicted in a Paris court Oct. 21 of rape and sentenced to seven years. Activists hope the case will help to focus increasing attention on the international sex tourism industry that especially exploits children.

The girl, now 17, was taken to Paris by the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, which is a civil plaintiff in the case, and gave evidence against her alleged attacker. Agence France Presse identified the man as Amnon Chemouil, a 48-year-old railway worker from Paris.

The case represents the gradual uncovering of an extensive network of international tourists traveling to developing countries to have sex with minors. In recent years, there have been about 100 investigations worldwide of sex offenders abusing children abroad, according to End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking, an international nongovernmental organization based in Bangkok.

Since 1996, similar cases have been brought to trial in Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. The United States tried its first case in May.

While organizations like End Child Prostitution and UNICEF acknowledge extreme difficulty in getting hard figures for the numbers of sex tourists, they believe that cheaper airfares and greater freedom to travel in formerly restricted countries provide increasing opportunities for tourists looking to have sex with minors. And the Internet provides an efficient networking tool for individuals to share information on destinations and procurement.

End Child Prostitution offers the following numbers from case studies completed in some countries:

  • A recent study in India estimated 9 million prostitutes work there; about 30 percent are children. A further 10 percent reported that they had started their careers in prostitution before they were 18. A large number of these children are trafficked from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.
  • It is estimated that 30 percent of commercial sex workers in Cambodia are younger than 18 years old. At least half are forced into the trade, either tricked with promises of high paying jobs or sold.
  • In Jamaica, a third of the women interviewed in a recent study of adult female prostitutes said they had been abused through prostitution before their 18th birthday.
  • In Latin America, increasing numbers of street children trade sex for money to buy food or drugs. An estimated 25,000 minors are involved in prostitution in the Dominican Republic.

Chemouil was caught because his traveling companion, a Swiss man called Viktor Michel, made a videotape of the sexual encounter in Pattaya, Thailand, in 1994.

Michel identified Chemouil when Swiss police raided his home and found the pornographic recording. They passed the information on to their French counterparts. The French news agency reported that Chemouil admitted having paid to have sex with the girl. He faces a maximum 20 years in jail.

In recent years, there have been about 100 investigations worldwide of child sex offenders abusing children abroad, according to End Child Prostitution.

After French authorities began an investigation into this case, they asked the Paris office of UNICEF to help locate the girl in Thailand. UNICEF, working with a local group, known as FACE (Fight Against Child Exploitation), which is part of the End Child Prostitution network, found the girl and took her to Paris to testify.

According to Mark Thomas, the information officer for UNICEF Asia Pacific, the U.N. agency’s involvement in this case is unique. “UNICEF advocates for such cases and we do this vigorously, but rarely do we take on an individual case.” He added that UNICEF felt compelled to get involved in this cause, because of the magnitude of child prostitution.

“It is a terrible crime,” he said, “and it is a crime against all of us.”

Christine Beddoe, the Australia program director of End Child Prostitution, was in Bangkok in August for an international conference on sex tourism. Anti-sex tourism efforts have been hindered by not just economic desperation but also a lack of cooperation from law enforcement agencies. “Our key challenge has been to make sure governments implement the wonderful [law enforcement] promises they have made,” Beddoe said. France is one of about 20 countries that have adopted laws in recent years making possible the prosecution of sexual crimes committed aboard. But in most countries, these statutes are difficult to implement.

In the United States, a federal statute (Title 18, Section 2423) makes it a crime for any American citizen to travel abroad with the intent to sexually abuse children. The first convictions under this statute were won in federal district court in Miami this May when Marvin Hersh, an American university professor from Boca Raton, Fla., was found guilty of traveling to Honduras to sexually abuse street children and for trafficking a 14-year-old boy back to Florida as a “sex toy.” Hersh received a 105-year sentence from U.S. District Judge Alan Gold, who called the defendant, “a predator of the young and the unfortunate.”

Hersh’s friend, Nelson Jay Buhler, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was convicted of traveling for the purpose of sexual contact with a minor, and aggravated sexual abuse of a child in Honduras.

The group End Child Prostitution was established in 1990 as part of a campaign to end child prostitution in Asian tourism by a group of nongovernmental organization workers and other concerned individuals. In 1996, the group widened its scope to encompass child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes and became an international campaign.

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000