Sexual abuse of children

Published : Jul 16, 2004 00:00 IST

Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, who were murdered in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in August 2002. - PA, FAMILY HANDOUT/AP

Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, who were murdered in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in August 2002. - PA, FAMILY HANDOUT/AP

An enforcement unit devoted exclusively to child pornography and allied crime is one sure way of enhancing police sensitivity to the crime of sexual exploitation of children and punishing the offenders with public assistance.

"You are the one person who knows how you murdered them... why you murdered them. You destroyed the evidence but you showed no mercy... no regret."

Justice Moses at the Old Bailey while convicting Ian Huntley in the Soham girls murder case on December 17, 2003.

THREE shocking cases of violence reported extensively in the British press highlight the growing vulnerability of young children to sexual exploitation and the glaring deficiencies of the criminal justice system in coping with it. In these cases there are possibly many lessons that could help persuade the establishment and the average citizen across the globe to become a little more sensitive to the task of protecting children from criminals, with or without a psychiatric problem.

In the first case, a French national Francisco Arce Montes (54) was recently found guilty for the 1996 rape and murder of an English girl Caroline Dickinson, 13, at Pleine Fougeres while she was on a school excursion in Brittany (France). A few hours prior to this crime, Montes had also attacked Kate Wrigley, also13 and from England, at a youth hostel 50 kilometres from Pleine Fougeres. After Kate raised an alarm that woke up the others in the hostel, he fled the scene. The magistrate who convicted Montes required him to serve a minimum of 20 years (of the total sentence of 30 years) without parole. However, under a French law that came into effect in 2001, a convicted offender is entitled to a second trial if he files an appeal within 10 days of the sentence, which Montes has now done. His fresh trial could take anywhere from six to 12 months and it will be at a different venue. A new prosecution counsel will have to be appointed, and the evidence presented all over again before three judges and a jury of 12 (as against just nine in the first trial). Montes had proved himself extremely difficult during the trial, refusing to answer questions put to him, on the grounds that his counsel had not been given enough time to prepare his case. He actually went on a hunger strike at the psychiatric wing of the prison near Paris.

In the next case, hailed as Belgium's "trial of the century", Marc Dutroux, once an electrician, was convicted in May for the kidnapping, rape and murder of six girls between the ages of eight and 19 during 1995-98. In one instance, an eight-year-old girl was raped and left to die in a dungeon. (During his deposition, he admitted to having murdered two young girls, hiding their bodies in the family freezer and later burying them in his garden. Not surprisingly, the jury were offered counselling after hearing this horror account of the crime straight from the man who perpetrated it.) Dutroux had reportedly had a bad record, having been jailed in 1979 for theft and violent mugging. In 1986, he again came to notice for the abduction and rape of five girls. In 1989, he was sentenced to 13 years in jail, but was released within three years on parole under a new law that sanctioned mere surveillance of sexual offenders. Ironically, when the police raided his house in 1995, they heard the voices of children but could not trace their source. Also, in 1998, while being transferred from one prison to another, Dutroux had escaped briefly from police custody.

The case attracted so much attention that there were speculations that Dutroux was not acting alone and was part of a paedophile network consisting of influential people. The names mentioned in this connection included those of a former Prime Minister and a member of the royal family. The acquittal, for want of evidence, of an influential businessman, Michel Nihoul, who had also been indicted in the case, has fuelled the theory that there had been a cover-up. Here, the jury were split, seven against Nihoul and five for his discharge on grounds of insufficient evidence.

The third case relates to the August 2002 murder of two young girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, by Ian Huntley, a secondary school caretaker in Soham (England), with the help of his girlfriend Maxine Carr who was a teaching assistant at St. Andrew's Primary School where the two girls were pupils (Frontline, September 13, 2002). The case stirred the whole of the United Kingdom when the search for the girls was conducted for nearly two weeks before their bodies were found in a heavily wooded area about 10 km from their home. In December last, Huntley was convicted for life and Carr for 42 months.

During the Soham trial last year, it came to light that Huntley had a long criminal record of four rapes, four under-age sex offences and one sexual assault. The Humberside Police had received a complaint in all these cases and had this information in their records. But when the Cambridgeshire Police vetted Huntley's background to clear his appointment with the Soham College (which is actually a secondary school), they did not choose to contact the Humberside Police. Also, a computer check was botched up by the former in two ways. First, they fed in a wrong date of birth while browsing the child access database. Second, the search was confined to Huntley's alias, namely, Nixon. The process of vetting by Cambridgeshire was superficial and was concluded too early for permitting any meaningful investigation into Huntley's background prior to being employed by the school.

The Soham murders caused a national furore in that an individual, who had possibly a psychiatric problem, was allowed access to children mainly because of poor police record keeping and insufficient inter-agency coordination. An inquiry by Sir Michael Bichard, former U.K. Permanent Secretary for Education and Employment, was ordered to go into the episode and recommend how to enhance the quality of records management in the police. Bichard's report was released a fortnight ago triggering a public debate on how to build an effective national criminal database. Bichard recommended the opening of a national register of names of persons who want to work with children or vulnerable adults, and have been found fit for such employment. Those figuring in the register will be given a passport or licence, making them eligible to work in sensitive institutions. All prospective employers will have access to this register. Bichard also suggested the introduction of a nationwide IT system - something on which police forces and the Criminal Justice Information Technology (CJIT) in the U.K. have made considerable progress - to support police intelligence. Finally, a national code of practice was to be established for laying down norms for the creation, retention, deletion and sharing of records between police forces. A simultaneous separate inquiry by Her Majesty's Inspector Sir Ronnie Flanagan probed the quality of investigation by the Cambridgeshire Police. The Flanagan report released again recently, indicted the former for an initial "lack of grip" and "lack of focus and determination" in proceeding with the investigation.

Controversy surrounds the demand of U.K.'s Home Secretary, David Blunkett, that the Humberside Police Chief Constable should be suspended and the chief's determination that he will stay on until he finishes the task of establishing a reliable database and a foolproof system of verification of an applicant's antecedents.

A decision in the matter has to be taken by the Humberside Police Authority who enjoys considerable autonomy from the Home Office. (Each of the 43 police forces in the U.K. has a 17-member Authority - comprising local councillors, magistrates and independent members - that lays down strategy and holds the Chief Constable accountable for performance. Although it appoints the Chief, it does not have the power to give directions to him in matters of investigation of specific cases.)

IT is not my case that paedophilia is a new phenomenon. The history of crime in almost every country chronicles many chilling and soul-killing horrific crimes against hapless children. It is also not my case that this form of crime has registered an abnormal increase. What disturbs me most about the current scene is that, as in every other form of crime, especially prostitution, gangs living off the earnings from peddling captive children for sex are more prominent than before. With the arrival of international crime syndicates that regularly resort to trafficking in children and women, paedophilia cuts across national frontiers to heighten its commercial pulls. In particular, child pornography has gained firm roots in many parts of the world and flourishes through operatives who come together on the same platform from different geographies. The consumers - who include politicians, civil servants and teachers - do not stop with viewing images. Some actually crave for sexual exploits with children. It is this obnoxious appetite that has given rise to what has become known as `sex tourism'. Groups of wealthy individuals travelling abroad to gratify themselves are now known in many parts of the world. This is the most sickening part of the whole phenomenon. While kidnapping and wrongful detention are the first stages of the barbaric activity, at the next stage, the criminal, acting on his own or in concert with others in a network, does not hesitate to eliminate non-cooperative child victims in his custody.

Coming to the response of the criminal justice system to the exploitation of children, one is appalled that some enforcement agencies do not have either the inclination or the time to give the attention it deserves. The creation of a special enforcement unit that will devote itself exclusively to child pornography and allied crime is one sure way of enhancing police sensitivity and invoking public assistance to bring to book those offenders lurking in the corner. It must be remembered that those in this kind of crime network are highly secretive and rarely admit new members without intensive check for trust and reliability. This feature of the groups makes their infiltration difficult and information on their activities rarely forthcoming.

Talking of information, the Soham murders brought to light how even when information is available on individuals prone to such crime, enforcement agencies rarely coordinate. Also, recording of information is sketchy, making it difficult to retrieve. The basic requirement is that such data should be available nationally, if not internationally. The Interpol could be one such clearinghouse, but it is at the mercy of individual members, some of whom are sloppy in collecting and sharing information across borders.

There is a major democratic and human rights concern in what Michael Bichard has recommended. (He has, however, refuted this in a letter of June 25 to The Times, London.) No doubt, police record keeping needs to be comprehensive in the case of sex offenders, especially those who victimise children. But at what stage does a person enter such a references record to vet appointees to public positions? At the time of a complaint, or when he is actually convicted by a court of law? We have to be extremely sensitive to the age-old practice of some mischievous persons making false complaints against their adversaries out of spite. The decision to bring a name on to adverse police records will necessarily have to be left to the subjective satisfaction of the police. Possibly, the entering of a name in a suspect register (akin to the one we are familiar with in some parts of India), to start with, will be appropriate at the stage of a complaint. This process will have to be overseen by a senior police officer and the name kept confidential until the allegation is investigated and the indicted person sent to trial. Or else, there could be charges of arbitrariness against the police.

Both the Montes and Dutroux cases show the glaring inadequacies in the legal and judicial systems. The fact that under French law a whole new second trial is permitted (as in the Montes' case) on an appeal by the convict is astounding. We do have a provision for appeal in India. But during the hearing of an appeal, rarely is evidence recorded again, unless serious doubt is cast on the testimony of a key witness. Also, a retrial is ordered only when an appellate court is convinced that there had been gross miscarriage of justice in a lower court, which had either convicted a person or let him off the hook on unsure grounds. (A recent example is the Best Bakery case of Gujarat.) Such prolongation of the process before which an accused could begin to undergo his sentence does not at all meet the ends of justice, nor does it enhance deterrence, the one most important objective of judicial penalties.

Equally appalling is the fact that in Belgium, Dutroux enjoyed the benefit of parole within three years of beginning a 13-year jail term. Ironically, he committed many egregious crimes after he was released. Also uncomplimentary to the Belgian authorities is the fact that he was allowed to escape from custody while being transferred from one prison to another.

Talking of prison escapes, we in India are also aware how lax the system is. Escapes from police custody and judicial custody are so frequent now that they cease to cause outrage. Hardened criminals knew in the past that the odds were very much in their favour of getting an acquittal through intimidation of witnesses. Now they know that even if they were sent to jail after conviction, they could make the vanishing trick with the help of conniving jail staff. According to some knowledgeable observers, even substitution of prisoners is possible in some notoriously porous prisons. I wonder whether this is apocryphal or has actually happened. We must, however, remember that many moneyed prisoners have always an obliging friend or a relation who is prepared to swap places for a consideration.

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