A British Columbia man who served five years in a Thai prison for sexually abusing a child is expected to soon be released back into society now that he has been returned to Canada.
RCMP fear Christopher Neil is at high-risk to reoffend, but the Crown has indicated it wants a publication ban on the hearing that will determine conditions of his freedom.
Police say the 37-year-old has not committed any crimes in Canada, however, they used a section of the Criminal Code aimed at preserving public safety to arrest the man when he arrived Friday at Vancouver’s airport.
Mr. Neil appeared Monday before a provincial court judge in Richmond, B.C., just south of Vancouver, but his case was put off for two days.
“Any time you have a predator who is known to assault children in your environment, I think a community and a society need to know about that,” said Brian McConaghy, a former Mountie who heads a victims’ rights organization and attended the proceedings.
Mr. McConaghy has closely followed Mr. Neil’s case, which gained notoriety in 2007 when police widely released video images unscrambling an Internet photograph of Mr. Neil. He then became the subject of an international manhunt when he was no longer disguised by a digital swirl in online pictures of abuse. International media began referring to him as “Swirl Face.” Mr. Neil pleaded guilty and was sentenced.
“He served his time in Thailand for offences committed in Thailand, but there’s plenty more to the story and that’s what we’re interested in,” said Mr. McConaghy. “There is a legal process in place in Cambodia where they have expressed interest in him.”
Mark Thompson, a lawyer of 21 years appointed Monday morning to act as Mr. Neil’s duty counsel, said he will ask for a standard publication ban on the Canadian proceedings “to protect his right to a fair hearing.”
“I have spoken to him, he’s in good spirits,” he said of Mr. Neil, who made few facial expressions during his brief appearance. “He was treated well by the Thai and Canadian authorities. He wants to get on with the rest of his life. I can’t say right now what his plans are.”
Crown spokeswoman Samantha Hulme said the publication ban applies because evidence discussed in a bail hearing is always subject to such conditions. She said a lawyer will seek conditions on his release based on Section 810.1 of the Criminal Code, which was initiated by police. It is “based on concern that he will commit a sexual offence against persons under 16,” she said in an email.
RCMP with B.C.’s Child Exploitation Unit have said they’re taking that route rather than pursuing further sex tourism charges against the convicted pedophile.
While there are laws aimed at prosecuting Canadians who commit crimes out of the country, they don’t apply to Mr. Neil who has already served time for his offence, said Cpl. Mat Van Laer.
“It’s a little bit like this commonly known double-jeopardy issue,” he said in an interview on Sunday.
“We’re not going to be convicting someone for a similar crime that [they’ve] been convicted of before, elsewhere. He spent a significant amount of time in a Thailand prison for the crime that he’s committed.
“That’s why we’re not engaging in a sex tourism investigation.”
Neil’s brother lives in Canada, but Cpl. Laer said it wasn’t clear on his arrest where the man planned to live next. He currently has no fixed address, although he once lived in Maple Ridge, B.C.
He is now being held in a Richmond, B.C. jail cell.
Mr. Neil became known as Swirl Face due to the elaborate technical method he used to cover his online identity. But his true face circulated around the world after German computer experts cracked the code.
Interpol eventually found him teaching English in Korea. He fled to Thailand, where he was apprehended.
Cpl. Laer said Thai authorities released Mr. Neil earlier than anticipated, but noted that is not unusual and regularly occurs in Canada as well.
Officials collaborated with the federal government, Passport Canada, and the Canadian Border Services Agency to return Mr. Neil to B.C.
“It was no surprise for us to get the phone call and at the same time, it was no surprise for Mr. Neil to be greeted at the airport by Canadian authorities,” Cpl. Laer said.
Section 810.1 of the Criminal Code has been used by B.C. judges in similar circumstances in the past. A judge granted a restraining order against Orville Mader, who faced a lengthy jail term in Cambodia for sex crimes against children. The restrictions stayed in place from 2007 until late 2010.
They included ordering Mr. Mader to stay away from children and anywhere they might congregate, to stay off the Internet, to give up his passport and to report his whereabouts on a regular basis.
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