Children at risk

Print edition : September 26, 2008

Gary Glitter at the Supreme Court in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on June 15, 2006. He was sentenced to a three-year prison term but was released in August 2008 for good conduct and sent home to the United Kingdom.-AFP

The need for a national register of sex offenders is of great importance if we are to deny paedophiles access to children in schools or special institutions.

If we accept that paedophilia is an illness, we accept it as being beyond the control of its sufferer in exactly the way that we accept schizophrenia... if a man, for reasons not remotely his fault, is posing a risk to others, he should be subject to sectioning under the Mental Health Act with all the appropriate regret, sympathy and kindness.

Carol Sarler, The Times (London), August 21, on the Gary Glitter case.

JUST as the limits of human endurance have possibly not been reached, there is a strong belief that we are yet to see the limits of human depravity. There are occasions when an instance of extreme deviance shocks us into believing that this is the worst that can happen, only for us to be proved wrong by yet another incident of unimaginable villainy and cruelty.

While the reactions of the community to the evil of child abuse are still diffused, if not wholly muted, there are a few voices those of organisations devoted to child care and protection that are vociferous enough to make us sit up and reflect on whether we are doing enough to stem the rot. The wisdom of an old saying, for evil to triumph it is enough for good people to remain silent, is nowhere more relevant than to the menace of paedophilia, whose dimensions seem ever enlarging.

Posterity will not forgive us if we do not contribute at least a little to disseminating the message that sexual abuse of children should not be underestimated and that if left unchecked it could cast an indelible slur on a whole generation. This is especially true in the Indian context, where child sexual abuse is rampant but few understand its gravity or would like to stick their necks out to speak against it or move law enforcement for action when they are confronted by a specific instance.

The immediate provocation for writing on this sordid subject comes from the enormous publicity in the British media to the recent return of Gary Glitter, 64, a paedophile who served a term in a Vietnamese prison Thu Duc, the largest in the country with a capacity of 10,000 for molesting two girls aged 10 and 11 years. He was sentenced to three years in 2006 but was released in August in recognition of good conduct and sent home to the United Kingdom. The media coverage of Glitter has been incredible for its depth and this offers the hope that the message against this form of crime will spread far and wide both in the U.K. and in Europe, which, incidentally, is home to a surprisingly large number of paedophiles.

Glitters profile makes interesting reading. Known originally as Paul Gadd, he was a well-known rock musician of the 1970s. His earnings were substantial from a sale of 18 million records, many of which even figured in top 10 charts. His fortunes, for some unexplained reason, dipped in the early 1990s and he switched to doing quiz shows and variety programmes. In 1997, when he took his laptop to a repair shop, one of the workers stumbled on thousands of questionable images of children stored in the machine. This led to a four-month sentence for possession of child pornography.

This did not deter Gadd from travelling to Cambodia, a favourite haunt for perverts like him, after his release. But child rights advocates in Cambodia were soon up in arms against Gadds presence in their midst, and the Cambodian government had no option but to expel him. This it did in 2002. He moved to Vietnam, where he lived in a seaside villa near a popular tourist resort. Gadd did not seem to mend his ways and was generally noticed by the local public for entertaining young girls.

In course of time, complaints of his misconduct started pouring in. He attempted to flee to Bangkok to evade police action, but was intercepted at Ho Chi Minh Airport. Following his release from the Thu Duc prison in August, Gadd had no alternative but to return to the U.K. because no country would permit him entry. The U.K. government now proposes to impose restrictions on his movement. Apart from disclosing his personal information to a national Sex Offenders Register, Gadd may find himself prevented from leaving the country without permission, which would normally be denied to him under Section 114 of the Sexual Offences Act (2003). It allows the police to move a Magistrate seeking the issuance of a Foreign Travel Order (FTO) to prevent a registered sex offender from leaving the U.Ks shores. This is analogous to the Football (Disorder) Act of 2000, which prohibits known football hooligans from travelling abroad. According to ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), a well-known non-governmental organisation, the FTO in respect of sexual offenders has not been as effective as it has been in the case of football.

The burden of the additional paperwork involved perhaps explains why the police have managed to obtain only a handful of travel ban orders over the years. ECPAT, registered as a charity in the U.K., finds this wholly unacceptable, because it believes that the number of U.K. citizens misbehaving abroad is on the rise. To be specific, according to its information, in Thailand alone, 15 U.K. nationals were charged with sexual abuse of children between 2006 and 2008.

In the wake of Gadds return home and the enormous publicity it received from the media, Home Secretary Jacquis Smith has gone on record to say that the law on the subject could be further tightened. It is possible that registered sex offenders may have to give more than the present seven-day notice of their intention to travel abroad. The procedure for the police to obtain an FTO may be made simpler and faster. Also under consideration is a proposal to confiscate the passports of registered offenders.

A move to enhance from 16 to 18 the age limit of children considered at risk is also on the anvil. All these measures, read in conjunction with the legal authority of U.K. law enforcement to investigate sexual offences committed by a U.K. national abroad, should bring about a qualitative improvement to controls over offending citizens travelling outside the country mainly to indulge their perversity, a practice that goes under the fanciful label sex tourism.

It is against this backdrop that ECPAT has expressed its anguish over a judgment (July 23) of the Bombay High Court acquitting two U.K. nationals, Duncan Grant and Allan Walters, whom a lower court had convicted (2006) for six years for sexual abuse of children at the Anchorage Orphanage in Mumbai. An Indian citizen, William Dsouza, who managed the shelter and was found guilty of aiding and abetting the crime and sent to prison for three years, was also acquitted. The High Court decision cited lack of evidence presented by the prosecution. This no doubt speaks volumes for the quality of investigation.

At the same time, the High Courts conclusion highlights the magnitude of the problems encountered in investigating child abuse. It further explains why conviction rates for rape remain lower than 33 per cent. Non-governmental organisations and other social workers devoted to the cause of protecting the rights of women and children are exercised over the apparent incompetence of prosecutors and the inadequate training given to police personnel who handle cases of rape and child abuse. They are more than convinced that probing such cases are a low priority for the police, unless it becomes a huge public scandal and attracts media attention.

Finally, one may ask the question: What controls exist in India to prevent a sex offender from repeating his delinquency? I am afraid there are few I can talk about. I am not aware of a register of sex offenders, which would provide the basic database nationally, containing the names of those who pose a threat to women and children. As for paedophiles, the most important requirement is to deny them access to children in schools or special institutions such as an orphanage. It is here that a national registration of sex offenders assumes importance. The failure to vet the background of those seeking employment in such institutions has proved fatal in many instances. Every community also needs to be told that it has in its midst a convicted sex offender who had undergone a term of imprisonment, so that it builds protection around those vulnerable to sexual attacks. This may seem to be a fanciful position, one that has human rights implications. It also takes us back to the traditional debate over how to handle deviance: whether misconduct should be treated as a crime or a mental aberration.

Whatever it be, the guideline should be one that emphasises moderation. This is why I am amused whenever there is an outcry over the penalty for rape and a demand for the death sentence for sexual attacks not accompanied by murder.

A stiff penalty such as capital sentence demands higher proof in courts, which, in turn, implies lower conviction rates. This would eventually mean more suspects living in our midst who are free to indulge in their perversion, all because the prosecution could not prove their case, as in the recent Mumbai case.

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