Crown prosecutors in British Columbia considered turning to a rarely used provision of the Criminal Code to prosecute a Canadian accused of committing sex crimes against boys in other countries, documents released under the federal Access to Information Act reveal.
But their plans were dashed when Thailand decided to file charges against Christopher Neil of Maple Ridge, B.C., for molesting a Thai boy in 2003 while he was teaching and living in Bangkok.
Mr. Neil had been arrested in Thailand last October after police released an unscrambled image of a man who had been sexually abusing children and posting more than 200 images online.
The man was initially identified only as being a Canadian citizen living in South Korea. Interpol launched a global effort, dubbed Operation Vico, to try to identify the man whose face had been digitally distorted. German police managed to unblock the swirl and the man fled to Thailand.
The RCMP consulted the Department of Justice about the possibility of prosecuting him in Canada, according to an October, 2007, briefing note to Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day.
Federal and provincial officials agreed that the Attorney-General of British Columbia, where the suspect had last lived in Canada, would be responsible for any prosecution, according to the note, obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin under the access to information law.
That would require invoking the little used extra-territorial provision of the Criminal Code that allows for the prosecution of Canadians for sex crimes committed overseas. There has only been one conviction under Canada's decade- old sex-tourism law, with another case pending.
Rosalind Prober, president of the Canadian anti-child-exploitation group Beyond Borders, said that historically in childsex cases, jurisdiction goes to the country in which the suspect is captured. Under the Criminal Code extra- territorial provision, anyone found guilty faces a maximum of 14 years in prison. Thai law permits a maximum sentence of 20 years, but those sentences are usually reserved for producers of child pornography and traffickers of children into prostitution; sentences for those who have sex with children tend to top out at about 10 years.
The Neil case illustrates some of the myriad challenges of investigating and trying international child-sex allegations, where victims, crimes and witnesses span the globe, creating jurisdictional and logistical nightmares.
But critics add that the Neil case and others like it also show that Canada has done little, in terms of awareness and resources, to combat international child sexual exploitation.
"We're the laggards," Ms. Prober said. "There are so many things we could do, but we're just not in the groove."
Benjamin Perrin, an assistant professor with the University of B.C. Faculty of Law whose research focuses on international criminal law and human trafficking, said Canada has one of the worst records in the developing world when it comes to using the extra-territorial provisions, with only the one conviction.
"We just have not followed up tough talk with action," he said, adding that a lax position on enforcement allows those who would exploit children to travel overseas and "simply take a vacation from the laws of Canada."
Even though Mr. Neil is due to be sentenced next month in Thailand, Mr. Perrin said there are other allegations relating to incidents in Cambodia and Vietnam for which Mr. Neil could still be prosecuted in Canada. The Criminal Justice Branch in B.C. would not speculate on whether that's still a possibility.
While they were considering such a prosecution last year, officials in B.C. were also concerned about what could happen should Mr. Neil be publicly identified too soon by Interpol.
"Crown counsel in British Columbia has advised that Interpol releasing the suspect's name and nationality could seriously jeopardize any potential prosecutions in Canada," the RCMP briefing note states.
However, Ron Noble, the secretary-general of Interpol, wrote to RCMP commissioner William Elliott and Mr. Day indicating that Interpol disagreed with the Canadian position.
Ultimately, Mr. Neil's identity was released publicly, but his prosecution took place in Thailand, where he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 13-year- old Thai boy. He will be sentenced in August.
Cases put Canada in the spotlight
When the World Congress Against Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents takes place in Rio de Janeiro in November, Canada will be under the spotlight.
Rosalind Prober, president of the Canadian anti-child exploitation group Beyond Borders, said Canada is involved in a number of interesting legal cases relating to child exploitation, and those who combat the crime around the world will be watching.
Christopher Neil, a Canadian who recently pleaded guilty to charges that he abused a young boy in Thailand, will soon be sentenced in that country. It is not clear whether Mr. Neil will face any subsequent prosecutions in Canada or elsewhere for other alleged crimes.
Orville Mader, another Canadian accused of molesting a boy in Thailand, managed to make it back to Canada in spite of a Thai arrest warrant. He currently faces no charges in Canada.
While there are extra-territorial provisions in the Criminal Code that allow for a Canadian to be prosecuted for child sex crimes that take place outside the country, they are rarely used. The only such conviction came in 2005, when Donald Bakker pleaded guilty to several counts of sex crimes against children in Cambodia and was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
But another case is currently ongoing. Kenneth Klassen, an international art dealer, is charged with several sextourism counts, involving children from Colombia, Cambodia and the Philippines. The Klassen case will also be a major topic of discussion in Rio de Janeiro, Ms. Prober said.