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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006, 00:03 GMT
No justice for victims of sex tourism
By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Philippines

Gary Glitter is soon to appear in court in Vietnam accused of committing obscene acts with two girls. But westerners accused of sex offences, often against children, appear almost daily in courts in a number of South-East Asian countries, including the Philippines.

Child sex workers in Asia
Some girls just desperate to survive are forced to sell their bodies

Judge Ofelia Pinto's courtroom has a homely sort of feel to it.

There are souvenirs on the shelves, a dozen bowling trophies crowded on top of the filing cabinets, and the judge's four-year-old grandson playing with some toys in the corner.

Judge Pinto is a short, brisk, 60-year-old woman with a roaring laugh and sharp eyes.

She has been trying cases here for 10 years: rape, murder, paedophilia, child trafficking.

This shabby city, sandwiched between an old American airbase and the menacing silhouette of the Mt Pinatubo volcano, seems to be a magnet for trouble.

This morning, things are getting off to a slow start.

The lawyers are late, as usual, and the prosecutor rang in last night to say he was taking a day off.

So most of the cases - and there are dozens on the list today - will simply be rescheduled.

Judge Pinto shrugs.

The wheels of justice turn slowly in the Philippines, if they turn at all.

She thinks back carefully over all her trials involving the local sex industry and admits that she has sent almost no-one to prison.

In most cases, she says frankly, the key witnesses are simply paid off.

Child abuse

By 0930, the courtroom's narrow benches are full.

On the back row, a slim teenager called Mary Ann is sitting, holding hands with her social worker.

I was like a toy for them... they could buy me for the night
Mary Ann

Mary Ann was 12 when her father hanged himself.

Her mother promptly bailed her boyfriend out of prison.

He is a drug addict who beat Mary Ann repeatedly.

She ran away to her aunt, who found her work in a bar.

But in Angeles city, that can mean only one thing.

Aged 13, Mary Ann was wearing a bikini and dancing in front of foreign sex tourists for 1.50 ($2.60) a night.

"I was like a toy for them," she says, matter-of-factly. "They could buy me for the night."

But Mary Ann was lucky. She was rescued from the G-spot bar by a child welfare organisation.

She ran away.

They rescued her again.

"They saved me," she says, her freckled face smiling.

Middle-aged predators

Yesterday evening, Mary Ann showed me where she used to work on Field's Avenue.

The G-spot bar has been replaced by a new operation, the Viper room.

We stood on the dark street outside and watched the women trying to entice customers.

Beside me, Mary Ann said: "It's strange to think I could still be working here today. I'm sure I would be on drugs. I am a shy girl. That's the only way to cope."

A steady stream of white middle-aged men walked past us.

Seeing me with a particularly young-looking girl, one man called out: "if you like 'em young, you should head down that way," and he pointed, helpfully, into the night.

'Guest relation officers'

Prostitution is illegal in the Philippines.

The age of consent in this fiercely Catholic country is 18.

These obstacles are sidestepped here in Angeles city with the help of a few euphemisms.

The prostitutes used to be called "bar girls". Now they are known as "guest relation officers."

A prospective client can rent an "officer" as his girlfriend for the night by paying what is known as a "bar fee."

As for the age limit, Mary Ann explained how she turned up at the G-spot with her aunt and told them she was 13.

"Better get some new documents then," came the reply. "Just photocopy someone else's and come back tomorrow."

So she borrowed the papers of a 21-year-old neighbour and started work the next day.

"There were 10 underage girls there with me," she said.

Which brings us back to Judge Pinto's courtroom.

Day in court

Today is the final day in the trial of three people accused of employing Mary Ann at the G-spot bar.

They are facing charges of trafficking children.

Mary Ann has given evidence against them all.

Two of the accused are local women. They have failed to show up.

But an American man is standing right in front of the judge.

Thomas Jarell is 46, with a short, army-style haircut.

He has spent two years in prison waiting for this moment.

He has always denied running the G-spot bar and says he was simply a regular visitor.

Judge Pinto's verdict is read out.

The two local women are found guilty and arrest warrants are issued.

But Jarell is acquitted. His head slumps forward in relief.

Judge Pinto says the prosecution failed to prove he had any formal link with the bar.

Mary Ann walks out of the courtroom, still clutching the hand of her social worker.

Tonight she will be back in a dormitory full of other teenage girls rescued from the Philippines' booming sex industry.

"I'm strong," she says. "I want to go to college and become a lawyer."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 February, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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