Why do travelling child sex offenders have it easy in India?
In the tiny village of Chinnammalpuram , about 40kms away from Tirunelveli, British social-worker Jonathan Robinson was a revered man. He was the patron of the Gail Trust that ran the village orphanage, housing more than 35 orphans. He would even take them on trips to touristy places like Shimla and nearby, Kodaikanal.
It was only when in 2011, 15-year-old Sriram* went to lodge a complaint with a local child welfare NGO that skeletons began tumbling out of Robinson’s cupboard: Jonathan has been sexually abusing the children since 2001. Once the police were alerted, they found thousands of child pornography material and many boys in the orphanage came out with similar abuse stories. Afraid of not being taken seriously, the children did not come out against him till Sriram found enough courage. Sriram, who was taken to Shimla, later revealed that the abuse started en route.
Last month, the Madurai bench of the Madras high court, in response to Robinson’s plea to quash charges against him, took cognisance of the seriousness of the matter. It sought the intervention of the Union ministry of women and child development and asked for statistics on the number of children abused by foreigners year after year in India.
As far as records are concerned, neither the police or the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) have any composite data. And, Robinson is not the first offender in Tirunelveli, let alone Tamil Nadu. In 2009, a Dutch man,
William Heum, was sentenced to 25 years rigorous imprisonment for sexually abusing children at a child care facility in nearby Mamallapuram. He was also found with child pornography material with him, that he uploaded on the internet. Tirunelveli alone has 107 child care homes, many of which are unregistered and private. “A well-known travel guide that foreigners frequently use lists two of these orphanages, both of which are unregistered.
Why does a travel guide list orphanages?” asks Vidya Reddy of TULIR, who has worked in the areas of child sex abuse for many years.
What makes it easy for tourists to escape the law and settle in another country and exploit its children? “They are almost always repeat offenders who look out for vulnerable communities. They gain access, build a rapport for minimum risk,” says Reddy.
Many of these offenders pick up religious antecedents, and many say that there are teachers. “There was this one guy who even called himself an ophthalmologist. Only God knows how many people he must have operated upon,” says Reddy.
In May, notorious child sex offender Raymond Varley plea to not be extradited to India was upheld by a Westminster court because of a medical report prepared by one of his friends that deemed him unwell. “This was his last ditch attempt. He kept on denying that the guy in the photo was him. Suddenly, in his last hearing he said he was suffering from dementia,” says Reddy. Varley was charged with various counts of child sex abuse between 1989-91, and several images of child pornography was found on him.
Varley was part of the Freddy Peats gang, the notorious paedophile from Goa, that brought the focus of the problem in India. Former head of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual
Purposes (ECPAT) Christine Beddoe, who was in the Capital last month to be a part of a panel discussion on the topic with Reddy, feels that bureaucratic tangles are part of the problem.
“In this digital age, how long does it take to share information between countries? Usually that is the biggest problem we face. Countries do not work in tandem to share information. Also, in India, a foreigner seems to be more important than a child,” says Beddoe. As per consulate data, Beddoe says that in 2011-12, 66 Brit nationals pleaded for help to their consulates in cases of child sex abuse. “And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The five-year statistic is 293. There are many that just escape, take out new passports bring on new identities and carry on,” says Beddoe. Beddoe adds that of these, in 2008-09, 33 cases involved teaching positions, and of them 23 had previous convictions in the UK.
Matters are made worse, feels Reddy, by the new visa laws introduced by the government late October this year. “Apart from 13 countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh etc, the government now gives visa-on-arrival to national of all countries. No one bothers to look at the criminal antecedents of these foreigners,” says Reddy.
As part of their recommendations, Reddy and Beddoe feel that there must be a central hub of information on these offenders for individual counties to check from. Co-ordinated investigations are a must, with participating countries contributing their resources to the best of their ability. Rapid responses, like no bail arrests, freezing of passports, circulating latest digital photos etc must define the initial actions. Apart form that, an intelligence package consisting of credit card data, bank account, phone numbers, name verifications and history of previous arrests, criminal records must be circulated widely through authorities.
* name changed