By Hilary White

PHNOM PENH, April 15, 2008 ( – The Swiss head of a group of Cambodian charity children’s hospitals has refused a donation of US $91,000 after the funds were raised by the auction of a nude photo of the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Dr. Beat Richner, a Swiss paediatrician and cellist told Le Matin Dimanche that he made the decision out of respect for the traditional cultural sensibilities of his Cambodian patients.

The photo of Carla Bruni, the Italian-born former model and current wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was taken in 1993. It was auctioned in New York last Thursday and the seller, German collector Gert Elfering wanted to donate the money from the sale to charity.

“Accepting money obtained from exploitation of the female body would be perceived as an insult,” Dr. Richner said.

In Cambodia, he said, “the use of nudity is not understood in the way it is in the West”. Most Cambodians are of ethnic Khmer background and are Theravada Buddhists.

Richner said that he did not want his hospitals “to be involved in the media exploitation of Madame Bruni”. “The idea behind this gift was to get publicity for the auction and the photographer,” he said. “It was a way of using us.”

Dr. Richner worked at the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh in the early 1970’s but was forced to return to Switzerland when the communist Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia. In 1991 when political stability had been achieved, Richner returned to Cambodia and was asked by Cambodia’s King to re-open the children’s hospital.

He gives free weekly cello concerts in the auditorium of Javarman VII Hospital on Friday and Saturday nights at which he asks for donations of blood and money from tourists.

Richner has built three hospitals, funded only by donations, which provide world-class medical care to Cambodian children free of charge. Kantha Bopha hospitals treat a million children per year. Common diseases that are treated are Japanese encephalitis, malaria, dengue fever and typhoid which are often exacerbated by TB, the number one killer. But the hospital’s mortality rate is as low as one per cent.

He said to Le Salon Beige, “My refusal is not a criticism of this photo or of its model.”

“We are not in Hollywood…At the same time, for Cambodians and their government, Madame Bruni is now seen as the First Lady of France. Our reputation would be stained by what they would perceive as disrespect should we accept money of this nature.”

Richner and one other doctor are the only non-Cambodians among 1900 staff. The hospital has trained hundreds of medical students. Annual operational expenses in 2006 topped $17million US.

To make an online donation to the hospitals: