In 2013, Richard Huckle visited an orphanage in Bangalore to teach photography to the children.
Richard Huckle, a 30-year-old British national was sentenced to serve 22 life terms by the central criminal court for England and Wales on June 7. Huckle pleaded guilty to 14 counts of raping a child, five counts of assault by digital penetration of a child, 31 counts of sexually assaulting a child, six counts of inciting children to engage in sexual activity, 12 counts of taking indecent photographs of children, one count of making indecent photographs of children, one count of possession of indecent photographs with a view of distribution and one count of facilitating a child sex offence. Twenty further counts were left on file.
Huckle’s case is perhaps the most high profile case of international child sex tourism after the case of British glam-rock star Gary Glitter — who was sentenced last year to 16 years of imprisonment for child-sex related offences.
Huckle was a systematic abuser of children and investigators uncovered over 20,000 indecent images of children from Huckle’s encrypted computer along with a sixty page handbook called Paedophiles And Poverty: Child Lover Guide. This book was intended to be a guide for people seeking to commit offences against vulnerable children from poor neighbourhoods in Asia. Huckle also maintained a ledger where he detailed the abuse of 191 children and awarded himself points depending on the depravity of the abuse. He gained access to his victims by posing as a religious missionary.
In 2013, Huckle visited an orphanage in Bangalore to teach photography to the children. Authorities at the orphanage, however, confirmed that he was never allowed near the children. The e-mail exchanges though, reflect the fact that Huckle extensively travelled in south India. There is no information if he visited any other orphanage during his stay.
Huckle’s India visit should be of much concern to the Indian authorities and there is a need for a thorough investigation into his India trips also. The Malaysian authorities are already coming under fire for not having done anything about Huckle’s activities. An online petition is also being circulated asking the Indian authorities to investigate and if necessary take action against him.
At the same time, there is a need to examine and reflect on how vulnerable Indian children are to abuse even after the implementation of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POSCO). POSCO was brought in because the existing machinery under the penal code was deemed insufficient to prosecute sexual offences against children. POSCO creates strict and stringent penalties for sexually assaulting a child and these penalties extend up to imprisonment for life. However, the conviction rate under POSCO remains at 2.4% of the total number of cases registered in the country.
Huckle’s case also casts light on the inherent vulnerabilities in India’s visa system. Huckle visited India before the ‘Visa on Arrival’ scheme was implemented for British nationals. He was, therefore, required to have applied for a visa prior to entering India. There is also a need to investigate if there were any red flags missed by the Indian authorities while processing his visa application. Today, however, under the ‘Visa on Arrival’ regime, there is a greater need to ensure that information regarding sex offenders and suspected sex offenders like Huckle is shared between law enforcement authorities of various countries. The ‘Visa on Arrival’ system makes Indian children even more vulnerable to the actions of people like Huckle who spend their time in Asia in search of vulnerable children. Without an arrangement on information sharing with other law enforcement authorities, the vulnerability would still exist.
Under the POSCO, attempting or abetting a sexual offence against a minor is an offence. If Huckle is found to have abused or attempted to abuse a child during his stay in India, there is a moral requirement that the Indian authorities prosecute him for the same, irrespective of his prosecution and conviction in the UK. The Indian authorities need to take a strong stance on such crimes and a prosecution in India would increase awareness about child sexual abuse which is still a taboo subject in a socially conservative country like India.
As a result of social stigma associated with the crime and a lack of awareness, there is under reporting of offences committed against children, especially if the offenders are family members of the victims. Children and parents also need to be sensitised about the child sexual abuse. Recently, the Mumbai police has started conducting programs in schools, called “Police Didi”, where officers of the Mumbai police go to schools to sensitise children about the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch”, and other ways in which they could be abused. Under the program, children are also put in touch with women officers who can be their point of contact in the event of any abuse.
More initiatives like “Police Didi” are required in India and these initiatives need to be taken on the central level and implemented nation wide. This will help in increased awareness about such crimes and lead to greater reporting.
Ajay Kumar is a counsel at Ashlar Law.