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COLUMN ONE : Widening the War on Child Sex : Weak local enforcement has helped South Asia's vice trade flourish. Now, the U.S. and European 'consumer' countries are joining the battle to keep men from seeking young prostitutes overseas.

July 13, 1994|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGKOK, Thailand — Early last year, a retired Swedish civil servant was arrested during a police raid in the beach resort of Pattaya and charged with molesting a 13-year-old boy in his hotel room. As is common in prosecutions involving child prostitution in Asia, the case never went to trial.

Instead, the 66-year-old Swede, Bengt Bolin, was released on $4,000 bail and fled the country. Because Sweden has no extradition treaty with Thailand, it appeared that his legal problems were over.

After Bolin arrived in Sweden, however, he received a shock. State Prosecutor Sven-Erik Alhem called Bolin in and informed him that he was being officially investigated--the formal stage before prosecution--for violating Sweden's own child molestation law with his activities in Thailand. It is the first time Swedish authorities have contemplated using the 30-year-old law for crimes involving children overseas, Alhem says.

While Bolin maintains his innocence and prosecutors are still awaiting key evidence from Thailand before proceeding, the case has become the opening skirmish in a novel, worldwide legal battle to curb the flourishing trade in child prostitutes.

In the past year, Germany, France and Australia have proposed tough legal measures to discourage their citizens from traveling abroad for child prostitution. In the United States, Senate and House versions of a law on child abuse overseas have been sent to a joint congressional committee along with the rest of the current crime bill.

Child prostitution is one of the saddest scourges in developing Asia. Every year, thousands of men from Western Europe, the United States and Australia fly into Southeast Asia in search of children, both boys and girls, as sex partners or to use in pornography. Some poor parents in developing countries sell their children into a kind of slavery, while governments desperate for tourist dollars turn a blind eye.

Previously, efforts to control the trade have largely been a pitiful failure because of corruption. Now, however, efforts around the world have been galvanized in a campaign to adopt strict laws in the so-called consumer countries to discourage men from venturing overseas for underage sex.

The international campaign is being spearheaded by a small group called End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, which was founded in Bangkok in 1990 during an international conference on tourism. It has offices in 26 countries.

"Our goal is to let people know that if they want a child prostitute in Thailand or elsewhere in Asia that they are doing something illegal," said Sudarat S. Srisang, a Thai social worker who became ECPAT's executive director. "Before, there was this attitude that it was OK, that there was an acceptance in this part of the world. Well, it's no longer OK."

Although precise statistics are not available, ECPAT estimates that nearly 1 million children are involved in Asia's sex trade, including 300,000 to 400,000 in India, 200,000 to 300,000 in Thailand, 100,000 each in the Philippines and Taiwan, 40,000 in Vietnam and 30,000 in Sri Lanka. A recent report suggested that war-devastated Cambodia, which has few enforceable laws, is fast becoming a haven for child prostitution.

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The proposed U.S. law would expand the Mann Act, which makes it an offense to travel across state lines for immoral purposes, to make it a felony to travel outside the United States to engage in any sexual act with a minor that would be illegal in America. It would also be illegal for Americans to traffic in child pornography overseas.

Enforced by a special Justice Department office, the proposal calls for punishment of 10 years' imprisonment for a first offense and 20 years for a second offense. Civil liberties advocates had initially questioned whether it was legal to try someone in the United States for a crime committed overseas. But legal experts said this concept of "extraterritoriality" has been upheld in such cases as the one against former Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, who was tried and convicted in Miami on eight counts of racketeering, conspiracy and cocaine-smuggling.

"It is outrageous that U.S. citizens are allowed to travel abroad to engage in the sexual exploitation and abuse of minors that would be illegal in the United States and that U.S. (travel) agencies organize and advertise such laws," Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the bill's sponsors, testified at a House committee hearing in March. "U.S. citizens and tour agencies should not be allowed to fuel an international industry that results in the physical and psychological abuse of tens of thousands of children. The damaging consequences of this abuse can last a lifetime."

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