BANGKOK, Thailand – A Canadian pedophile suspect arrested last year after a global manhunt pleaded not guilty Friday to molesting underage boys in Thailand, a Thai court statement said.
Christopher Paul Neil was arrested in Thailand on Oct. 19, 2007, after the France-based international police agency Interpol issued a worldwide appeal to identify and apprehend him. The call was based on some 200 Internet photos believed to show Neil carrying out acts of sexual abuse.
In the photos, the face of the perpetrator was digitally obscured with a swirl, but German police computer experts managed to unscramble the photos so the man's face was recognizable. Interpol circulated the pictures publicly and from the tips they received identified Neil as the suspect.
The boys shown in the photos were believed to be from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
A statement issued by the Bangkok Criminal Court, where Neil appeared Friday, said he pleaded not guilty to charges of taking a child under 15 without parental consent with intent to molest, punishable by up to 20 years in prison; illegal detention, punishable by up to three years; and sexual abuse of a child under 15, punishable by up to 10 years.
When he was arrested, Neil was charged with sexually molesting a 9-year-old Thai boy in 2003. He was subsequently charged with sexually molesting the boy's older brother, who was 14 at the time, according to police.
Shackled at the ankles and dressed in a pale orange prison uniform, Neil was smiling after his hearing Friday as he was ushered out of the courthouse with other defendants and into a prison van.
"Have a day nice day, guys," he said to reporters, but did not answer any questions about the trial or the charges he faced.
The court set March 10 as the opening day for his trial.
Neil evidently does not have a defense attorney. He said he would find his own, but the court said it would appoint a lawyer if he does not have one by the first hearing, according to the court statement.
Neil, a schoolteacher, lived in Thailand from 2002 to early 2004, according to police. Three Thai youths contacted police after seeing Neil's photograph on television, claiming he had paid each of them $16 to $32 to perform oral sex on him in 2003. They were 9, 13 and 14 years old at the time of their alleged abuse.
Neil's arrest ended a global manhunt that started in 2004 when photos were discovered on the Internet of an unidentified man having sex with dozens of Asian boys, some as young as 6.
After reversing the digital swirl that had obscured the suspect's face, Interpol issued its unprecedented public appeal for help in identifying him and were soon able to trace him to Thailand.
Several countries in Southeast Asia are popular with pedophiles because of poverty that drives children and their parents to accept money for sexual favors and because of lax law enforcement.