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'Sextortion' hiding under the radar in war on corruption

Sep 04. 2015
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By Astrid Zweynert

The US immigration officer told a young Colombian woman that he wanted sex, once or twice, and in return would give her a green card, the coveted document that would allow her to live and work in the United States permanently.
What he did not know was that the conversation was recorded on a digital camera in her pocket and used as evidence in a case of “sextortion”, a form of corruption that involves officials abusing their power to obtain a sexual favour.
“Sextortion is very widespread, but it is one of the hardest-to-prove forms of corruption,” says Nancy Hendry, senior advisor at the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), which coined the term in its quest to stop the abusive practice.
Statistics are hard to come by but Interpol says reports indicate that sextortion is a growing problem with hundreds of thousands of victims around the world.
Prosecutors often have hard evidence and anti-corruption laws to charge people in positions of authority caught taking bribes. 
But when sex is involved, prosecution is harder because evidence is elusive, the law is unclear and victims often shy away from coming forward for fear of being shamed.
As a result, corruption prosecutions for sextortion remain relatively few because there are rarely witnesses and evidence, short of video or audio recordings, which are difficult to get in meetings that are often private.
Through heightened awareness, the judges hope to see sextortion get the same attention and penalties that sexual harassment and domestic violence - crimes that were once ignored or unquestioned - now command.
“People tend to dismiss is, partly because it is seen as part of life,” Hendry told delegates at the International Anti-Corruption Conference in Malaysia during a panel debate on the issue on Wednesday.
“But it shouldn’t be, just like sexual harassment or domestic violence are unacceptable.”
Behind closed doors
The demand for a sexual favour can be explicit or implicit, and usually employs fear rather than physical forms of coercion.
It does not have to involve sexual intercourse or even physical touching, but could be any form of unwanted sexual activity, including exposing body parts or posing for sexual photographs or videos, the IAWJ says.
Many sextortion cases happen in the workplace or in educational institutions, where “sex for grades” cases may be prosecuted under sexual harassment laws.
Han Chee Rull, deputy commissioner at the office of legal research of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, says sextortion is hard to prove as it is carried out in secrecy.
“Proof is also often hard to obtain due to a lack of evidence of physical violence because perpetrators and victims exchange sexual favours as a quid pro quo” – an exchange of services, he told delegates, adding that Malaysia has prosecuted only two cases.
Justice Engera Kileo, chairwoman of the Tanzania Women Judges Association, said Tanzania in 2007 recognised the solicitation of sexual favours through abuse of authority as a form of corruption, but the law was too weak to deal with sextortion cases.
“Building awareness and training officials is a key part of our work to stop sextortion from happening in the first place,” she says.
Growing problem
The number of people affected by sextortion is not available, partly because there is no standard procedure to record and document it as an offence.
A 2014 study by the IAWJ and the Thomson Reuters Foundation on laws in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Kenya, Mexico, Taiwan, Uganda and the United Kingdom found that none of the nine countries had adopted laws that use the term sextortion.
Interpol has warned that as Internet access continues to expand, especially in developing countries, there are likely to be more victims as sexually explicit material is posted online to blackmail people.
An Interpol-coordinated operation targeting organised crime networks behind sextortion cases around the world resulted in the arrest of 58 people last year.

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