Action Pour Les Enfants was at the forefront of the fight against child sexual exploitation in Cambodia. Then, their former-director was arrested for alleged child sex abuse.
Rong Rattana was watching. Rattana, a Child Protection Coordinator for the Cambodian non-governmental organization Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), had been on the American man's trail after seeing him ride through the city of Siem Reap on a motorbike with a young Cambodian boy in tow. For months, Rattana and other APLE investigators followed the man.
He was living on the outskirts of town, in a $1.2 million home outfitted with a pool and a water slide. The man, Jack Sporich, was a retired engineer who'd moved to Cambodia from Arizona, after spending nine years in US prison and another three in a state hospital for molesting young boys.
APLE investigators put Sporich's home under surveillance. They watched all day and saw three young Cambodian boys come and go. In interviews later detailed in court papers, the boys told APLE investigators that they called Sporich "dad." He gave them money for school and let them play on his computer. They told APLE that he'd slept in the same bed with them, bathed with them, and in those moments, he would sometimes reach down and play with their genitals.
The Cambodian group's investigation—a detailed account, which was outlined in a federal court complaint against Sporich filed in April 2009—led directly to Sporich's arrest in Cambodia and deportation back to the United States to face charges in federal court. Last month, 81-year-old Sporich was sentenced to ten years in prison for molesting two of the boys. It was a major success for APLE.
APLE sits at the forefront of efforts to crack down on child sexual exploitation in Cambodia, and over the years has become well-known for its hardcore approach. Relying on a team of covert investigators and a web of informants, the organization is dedicated to hunting down Western tourists who for years have regarded Cambodia—one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries—as a playground for hiring underage sex workers and sexually exploiting young children.
APLE's efforts have led to numerous convictions and the rescue of hundreds of abused children. In the process, it's become a key ally with the Cambodian police as well as with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security that runs its own Child Exploitation Investigations Unit. But the group has also been dogged by online critics, some actively defending convicted or accused sex offenders they see as wrongfully jailed. And in recent months, criminal charges against a former APLE director suggest that cases like Sporich's—as disturbing as they are—are just one part of a complex and deep-seated problem.
"The Pedophile Hunter, Part IV." Video via APLE on YouTube
Cambodia is well-known as a destination for "sex tourism." While many adult sex workers ply their trade willingly, the country has also been haunted by the history of red-light districts like Svay Pak, a village on the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh where brothels openly pimped out girls as young as five, and a "virgin trade" drew the most corrupt local and foreign customers.
Abuses of children in Cambodia once flew under the radar in part because the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen was hampered by corruption and lack of resources. But efforts shifted in the mid-2000s as the government began working closely with countries like the United States and Australia, arresting and then deporting foreigners to face trial in their home countries. The United States stepped up its own efforts by passing a law, part of the Protect Act of 2003, which makes it illegal for citizens and permanent residents to engage in sex acts with minors while traveling in a foreign country—a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
But none of these efforts would be nearly as effective were it not for APLE, which often sniffs out suspects before anybody else. The group, founded in 2003 by the French activist Thierry Darnaudet, has become immensely powerful. Though it operates relatively modestly (according to its financial statement for 2014, the organization had an annual income of $519,213 with outgoings of $491,834), the group works alongside American law enforcement, with the official blessing of Cambodia's Ministry of the Interior (MoI). According to Samleang Seila, APLE's president, a government-issued Memorandum of Understanding empowers the group to do its own preliminary investigative work to assist official authorities.
"If APLE did not investigate, it would be unlikely that anyone else could or would." — Alastair Hilton
"Every sector in Cambodia, whether education, agriculture, or tourism, has been assisted by NGOs. Ours is a proven model in developing countries, and it is our belief that Cambodia's police force is getting stronger and will soon be wealthy and healthy enough to take up these cases by themselves," Seila told VICE.
According to Cambodia's Ministry of Interior, APLE's investigations have led to more than 680 children being rescued from sexual abuse—55 percent boys, 45 percent girls. The group also maintains a crime hotline, which rang up 227 reports last year, leading to 23 arrests; it offers free legal support and social assistance to children and their families affected by sexual abuse.
Still, APLE is just one player in what are often highly complex international court cases. Take Ronald Gerard Boyajian, an American who was arrested along with Sporich and Erik Leonardus Peeters in 2009 as part of a joint US-Cambodian initiative dubbed "Operation Twisted Traveler." The investigations involved APLE, Cambodian police, the FBI, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Boyajian allegedly paid a ten-year-old Vietnamese girl 20,000 Cambodian reil (about $5) to perform oral sex on him. According to the initial complaint filed against him in US Central District Court of California, the investigation was jump-started by APLE, whose investigators witnessed Boyajian visiting a child brothel in Svay Pak. Later, according to court papers, the girl identified Boyajian in a photo line-up and said she had met with Boyajian multiple times. At one meeting, she said he told her, in Vietnamese, "Kid, go to work."
Boyajian—who had previously been convicted in 1994 on 22 counts of statutory rape in Orange County, according to records from the county's Superior Court—pleaded not guilty and hired a veteran Beverly Hills attorney, Danny Davis, to do research in Cambodia and punch holes in the prosecution's case. Davis suggested there were inconsistencies in the victim's account, and in 2012 he tried to get the case thrown out, arguing unsuccessfully that the charges were unconstitutional.
But that was just the beginning of what's turned out to be an epic saga of challenges and delays, causing Boyajian's case to lurch along with little progress for the past six years. After numerous stalling tactics, Boyajian's new trial date is set for November 3, but his court appointed assistant, George Buehler, says it might be delayed again.
So it's clear that APLE's investigations don't guarantee legal slam-dunks. Carol Smolenski, executive director of anti-child-trafficking advocacy group ECPAT USA, says these US child "sex tourism" cases can be especially hard on young survivors of sexual assault, who have to travel overseas to testify in US courts. As a result they may be re-traumatized by giving testimony, and they're also vulnerable to scrutiny from defense attorneys eager to discredit them.
"I remember speaking to some of the investigators about wanting to take the kids to an amusement park, because they were in a hotel for ten days, you know? And they're kids! They're cramped up," Smolenski said, referring to one US case. "But they really can't take them to an amusement park, because then that becomes something that the defense can use to say, 'That's why the kids are testifying. Because you wined and dined them.'"
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Back in Cambodia, APLE has maintained a growing influence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has led to accusations that the group has become too powerful. One of their most outspoken critics is James Ricketson, an Australian filmmaker and blogger who has become an advocate for a convicted rapist named David Fletcher. On his blog, Ricketson attacks the group and its founder, and highlights what he believes to be flagrant examples of shaky evidence collected by APLE that has been used to implicate suspects. In short, Ricketson thinks Cambodian authorities have given too much leeway to the organization.
"Evidence collected by APLE should be challenged by a lawyer representing the accused, but the veracity of APLE's evidence is rarely challenged in Cambodian courts," Ricketson said in an email to VICE. "This is a reflection on the incompetence of the country's judicial system, not on APLE's superior investigative abilities. It is time for the Cambodian government to stop outsourcing the policing of Cambodian law, with no oversight, to NGOs such as Action Pour les Enfants."
Seila dismissed the criticism, saying it comes from a misperception about how APLE operates.
"People seem to believe we are investigating cases by ourselves. What we do under the proviso of our MoI is to identify suspects, to pass information, and to carry out preliminary investigations," he said. "We don't make evidence—we assist the Cambodian police force in their investigations and our role is to support child victims from testimony throughout the process."
The US embassy in Cambodia and a spokesperson from Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment for this article. But the group also has the backing of other Cambodian groups dedicated to fighting child exploitation, like First-Step Cambodia, an NGO that provides resources for survivors of sexual abuse. Alastair Hilton, First-Step's organization's Technical Advisor and co-founder, said that "APLE, along with many other local and international organizations, has provided support, training, and resources to the MoI for a number of years in an effort to improve responses to and protection of children and others affected by and at risk of abuse. This has in many cases also resulted in sharing of intelligence and information leading to the arrest of a considerable number of Khmer and foreign nationals."
In general, it's perfectly legitimate for a private organization to help official law enforcement by providing resources and leads, says Diane Marie Amann, a professor of international criminal law at the University of Georgia School of Law.
"I think that collaboration with what we call 'civil society' is always positive," Amann said. "Criminal justice systems tend to need resources, and if there are private organizations that have familiarity with the situation, maybe better access or first access to the victims, it certainly is appropriate for them to cooperate."
Still, in a country where every week brings new headlines about pedophiles, recent events suggest that nobody—not even APLE—should be above suspicion.
In March, dozens of Cambodian police officers and government officials descended on a school and orphanage in Phnom Penh. The compound was called Our Home, and it was a residence for 60-plus kids, who were quickly evacuated and transferred to three different child protection centers in Cambodia. The children lugged their belongings in black plastic bags, and they had looks of confusion and fright on their faces as they were helped onto the back of covered pickup trucks. Meanwhile, the police arrested Our Home's owner, Hang Vibol.
The charges against him were shocking. For years, Vibol had been involved in fighting child exploitation; he had even served as APLE's former director of child protection. But in recent years he had become a target of an APLE investigation, and was now charged with abusing at least nine minors who were living at Our Home in 2013 and 2014.
Vibol's first hearing was held behind closed doors earlier this month. While behind bars he has protested his innocence, claiming that the evidence against him was fabricated in retaliation as part of an ongoing personal vendetta that began when he left APLE back in 2004, which he says was prompted by the organization's tactics. In a letter sent to VICE in March, Vibol said he was even planning to testify in Boyajian's case prior to his arrest, "in order to disclose all the activity of APLE in the US."
"I opposed the work of APLE," Vibol wrote in the letter. "APLE carries out activities that are beyond its competence by trespassing into police work, [using] the poor, who are the victims, by providing them food and coaching them to demand compensation from the accused."
Vibol has also levied accusations against APLE founder Thierry Darnaudet, accusing him of child molestation and embezzlement. Darnaudet (who no longer works for APLE) is now in the process of suing Vibol for defamation.
"At first it hurt when I read stuff on the internet about me, Seila, and APLE at large," Darnaudet wrote in an email to VICE. "Then I laughed as the allegations are so amazing and so twisted that it blew my mind away to think about how some people have time and interest to come up with such conspiracy theories. I feel bad for Seila, as I know how hard he works, how honest, meticulous, and how much integrity he has."
Vibol's arrest has proven somewhat controversial for APLE. The criminal charges against him stemmed from an APLE investigation and following the arrest, the head of Cambodian human rights group Licadho, Dr. Kek Pung, publicly questioned whether it was a conflict of interest for APLE to investigate its former director for sex offenses, when Vibol was being sued by Darnaudet over similar accusations. APLE quickly refuted those claims. Seila, APLE's president, told The Cambodia Daily earlier this year that Darnaudet had severed ties with APLE in August 2014, just before the investigation into Vibol began.
The group First-Step Cambodia is now helping to support the kids evacuated from Our Home as well as the dozen who are testifying against Vibol. Hilton, the Technical Advisor and co-founder, has maintained his faith in APLE. He pointed out that despite all this, APLE is still leading the charge in the movement to protect children from sexual abuse in Cambodia and rescue its victims.
"If APLE did not investigate, it would be unlikely that anyone else could or would," said Hilton.