Police and lawyers call for a better legal system to protect children against sex tourism
Two shoeshine boys walk the streets of Ho Chi Minh City looking for customers. Experts warn of a rising sex tourism industry that makes Vietnamese children increasingly vulnerable to sex crimes. Photo: Nghia Pham
Last week, a Ho Chi Minh City court upheld a sentence of life imprisonment for 37-year-old Do Thanh Nhan, who was convicted of raping his six-year-old stepdaughter in Tay Ninh Province.
The court rejected his appeal for more lenient punishment, saying his crime was "extremely serious" and even more especially so as the victim was his dependent.
The crime happened on April 8 when her mother Nguyen Thi Hang was away and the girl, identified only as D., was alone with Nhan.
After Hang had left, Nhan carried the girl to a bed and raped her. When he stopped, she was bleeding profusely.
Nhan called Hang and admitted to the crime. The mother rushed home to take her daughter to the hospital and called the police.
Investigators say child rape and other sex crimes are on the rise with the emergence of a child sex tourism industry and the increasing victimization of male children, prompting experts to call for a more comprehensive legal framework to deal with the sex crime problem.
According to a report released recently by the Supreme People's Procuracy, Vietnam's highest prosecutors' office, investigators launched 6,500 criminal probes against 6,800 child sex crime suspects between 2007 and 2011.
"In some cases, the victims are just two or three years old," the report said.
At a conference on child sex crime in June, the HCMC Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs reported that nearly 150 children in the city have been victimized to sex crimes and teenagers 13-16 were the most vulnerable group.
The department also said the proportion of male victims has increased.
Nationwide, the Ministry of Public Security's Criminal Police Department said there are more than 800 cases of child sex crimes every year and many are not reported.
Child sex tourism
At a conference on child sex tourism in the Mekong countries held in HCMC on October 30, Lieutenant General Phan Van Vinh, director of the Ministry of Public Security's Police Department said the number of child sex crimes in the region had increased over the past several years.
"The criminals come to Vietnam on tourist visas, doing business or teaching English, and they commit the crime whenever they have chance," he said.
Vinh said tourism in Vietnam is increasing, with nearly 30 million tourists traveling in Vietnam each year, of which 6 million are foreigners. By the end of September, tourism arrivals had increased 8 percent over the same period last year, he said.
"This will be a cause of an increase in child sex tourism if we do not have effective prevention and control measures," he said.
However, Vinh said the police have not detected many cases of child sex tourism so far.
Colonel Ho Sy Tien, director of the Criminal Police Department, admitted that it is difficult to investigate these crimes because the victims are too young to have exact and detailed reports or too frightened and refuse to cooperate with the police.
"The criminals often offer money or other benefits to buy the silence of the victims or witnesses. They even try to bribe the investigators," he said.
Tien said the victims are mostly poor children and street children living near tourism destinations or those migrating from other regions.
"Some criminals set up a ring to serve child sex to both local and foreign tourists," he said.
Experts said Vietnam's legal system is not strong enough to protect children, especially males, from sexual crimes.
"In Vietnam's legal system, there is no clause or even a complete definition of child sex tourism. There are no statistics on child sex tourism as well," Colonel Tien said.
In a recent investigative report, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper tracked down a male child prostitution ring through an online male homosexual forum.
The alleged ringleader, 20-year-old Thi Truong Han of HCMC's District 12, allegedly lured students into the ring via friendship and money. He gave ring members 30 percent of the money paid for each sexual tryst, often between VND500,00 VND1 million. The group's customers were male homosexuals.
The paper said in a follow-up story that for the crime of child rape, the criminal will face 12-20 years in jail, life imprisonment or the death sentence if the victim is a girl. But when the victim is a boy, the criminals only face sexual abuse charges, it said.
However, lawyer Phan Trung Hoai of the Vietnam Bar Association said the Penal Code offers enough legal basis to handle homosexual child rape crimes.
"In the articles 111 about rape and 112 about child rape, the criminal is defined as one who uses violence, threat of violence or other ploys to have an intercourse with the victim against their will. There is no gender issue here," he told Vietweek.
"While the sexual abuse of male children has become very serious, the Ministry of Public Security and relevant agencies should issue a joint-circular to further explain the crime and thus, issue strict punishment for male child sex crimes."
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