By Astrid Zweynert
PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A child protection organization has called on Cambodia to take tougher action against foreigners accused of child sex crimes after a U.S. man charged with grooming girls as young as three lived freely for three years before facing trial.
Robert Hays, 55, was sentenced on Tuesday to two years in jail by a court in Sihanoukville, a southern beach town infamous for child prostitution and a magnet for pedophiles driven out of neighboring countries, for indecently assaulting two girls who were aged three and eight at the time.
Hays, who taught English to local girls and regularly took them out for meals, was ordered to pay $500 compensation to each of his victims and will face deportation after his sentence.
APLE, Action Pour Les Enfants, welcomed the deportation order but criticised the fact that Hays was allowed to live freely after charges were laid in June 2012 and until his trial took place this year.
APLE wants the government to toughen punishments for foreigners convicted of sexual crimes against children and prevent them from staying in Cambodia.
"Hays' freedom before the trial allowed him to remain in contact with the children, traumatize the families, and influence his alleged victims to change their statements," said Khoem Vando, APLE's deputy director of field operations.
APLE said in a statement that four girls initially testified that they had been sexually abused by Hays, and the mothers of two of them gave evidence that their daughters had been sexually abused.
The charges followed a lengthy joint investigation by the Cambodian police and U.S. federal authorities.
Phnom Penh-based APLE urged the Cambodian authorities to push for more convictions against child sex abusers and to deport all foreigners convicted of child sex abuse to avoid them committing more such crimes in the country.
According to a 2015 report from APLE, only 32 of 115 convicted foreign sex offenders were deported after completing their sentence.
"This is a clear signal and helps serve as deterrent for other criminals that Cambodia will not allow such crimes, and that perpetrators will not only serve time in prison, but also be deported afterwards," APLE said in an earlier statement.
(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)