Phnom Penh: A Russian businessman accused of sexually abusing 17 children in Cambodia`s largest-known paedophile case had his sentence reduced to eight years from 17 on Thursday in an appeal that riled human rights advocates.
Lawyers for Alexander Trofimov, 43, who is also wanted by Interpol and Russia for suspected sex offences, said there was no solid evidence to prove he had abused 17 girls while working as a director of a holiday resort company.
The judge said Trofimov paid as little as USD 5 and as much as USD 2,000 for sex with girls from 2006 to 2007 in Cambodia`s seaside Preah Sihanouk province but reduced the sentence because he apologised and, as a foreigner, did not know the local laws.
Trofimov is the highest-profile case brought to court since Cambodia launched an anti-paedophile drive three years ago to ditch its reputation as a haven for foreign child abusers. The number of victims makes it the largest on record.
"The court`s decision is surprising. The public will have difficulty accepting this," Noun Phanith, lawyer for the victims, told reporters. "Eight years is unacceptable."
The move comes as Cambodia, a country blighted by poverty, corruption, human rights abuses and a thriving sex industry, seeks to clean up its image and attract foreign investment.
Since 2008, 64 suspected paedophiles, mostly foreigners, have been arrested, with 45 convictions so far, according to Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), a French group working closely with Cambodia`s police to track sex offenders.
Bith Kimhong, head of Cambodia`s Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department, said there was a worrying trend of sex and rape involving children but that Cambodia was committed to stamping out a crime that was hurting its image.
"We want the offender to stay in prison for a long time. That is our work. But the sentence is the court`s authority," he said.
Trofimov was executive director of Koh Puos Investment Group until his arrest in 2007 and lived in Sihanoukville, a beach town infamous for child prostitution and a magnet for paedophiles driven out of neighbouring countries after similar crackdowns.
His company was leading a USD 300 million resort and shopping development for an island off Preah Sihanouk.