BANGKOK: A child sex abuse network operating a website from locations including Thailand and Australia has been busted by Interpol, with 50 victims identified so far, the youngest of which was aged 15 months.
Named Operation Blackwrist after a bracelet worn by one of the sexual predators, the international investigation began after Interpol’s Crimes Against Children unit discovered photographs and videos showing the abuse of 11 boys on the dark web two years ago. All of the boys were under 13 years old.
According to Interpol, the materials originated from a subscription-based website with nearly 63,000 users worldwide. Each week, the site would publish new abusive material. The victims’ identity would be masked to allow only a few visual and audio clues.
CHILDREN LURED BY MEALS, INTERNET ACCESS
The abuse was carried out by the site’s main administrator in Thailand's Surin province - Montri Salangam - who lured the children to his home in a remote community with meals, Internet access and football games. One of the victims is his own nephew.
“The investigation took six months before we could identify the victims in Surin. The website sharing abusive images has revealed a link with Australia's Adelaide. Thailand's Department of Special Investigation (DSI), as a result, worked with the Australian police to arrest a suspect in Australia on the same day we arrested the suspect in Thailand, Jan 16, 2018,” said Police Captain Kemachart Prakaihongmanee from DSI.
The first victims were identified in November 2017, followed by arrests in Thailand, Australia and the United States.
Among the offenders was a second site administrator based in Australia - a Thai-Australian named Ruecha Tokputza.
His confiscated devices revealed thousands of images taken in Thailand and Australia, some of which showed him as the main abuser. The victims are mostly Australian children aged between 15 months and 12 years.
Both the abusers have been sentenced for their crimes.
In June last year, Thai courts handed Salangam 146 years in prison on charges of child rape, human trafficking, possessing and distributing child sexual abuse materials. His sentence was later reduced to 50 years. He also has to pay five victims 500,000 baht (US$15,600) each as compensation.
On May 17, Tokputza was sentenced to 40 years and three months in prison - the longest jail sentence ever imposed in Australia for child sex offences. He was described by an Australian judge as “every child’s worst nightmare” and “every parent’s horror”.
“During the investigation, our officers were confronted with 850,000 images and video files. They were then subjected to victim identification analysis. Some of the material depicted the Australian offender abusing multiple children and some are the most egregious offences,” said Mr Stephen Fry, senior liaison officer from the Australian Federal Police.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Besides the 50 victims already identified, police believe there are still 100 more who have suffered sexual abuse. Investigators are currently trying to identify them as they continue to comb through devices and chat groups, website users and offenders.
As for the abusive images and videos seized, they have been uploaded to Interpol’s International Child Sexual Exploitation database.
"Every image is evidence of a crime. It's important to work on these images and work together to try to identify (the victims). And that is what we do. So, police officers around the world are uploading material to the international child sexual exploitation database," said Interpol’s criminal intelligence officer Cecilia Wallin. "One of the unit's main purposes is to identify the victims through images and videos. We do that through a global network."
According to Mr Eric McLoughlin from the US Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Bangkok, Operation Blackwrist has also led to four arrests in Virginia, Florida and New York in the United States.
The cases involve individuals occupying positions of public trust and those who had easy access to children. This includes a school teacher, and another individual who was also abusing his two-year-old stepbrother.
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“The investigation is ongoing. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ms Wallin said, adding that the website's registered users come from almost every country, including Singapore. Nine offenders have been identified so far.
"Of the 63,000 registered users around the world, we can say that it contains almost every country. We sent information to 137 countries worldwide. So, definitely, in Singapore and any country, even in Africa," she said.
"The website was hosted in Bulgaria. They copied the server. They took it down with the assistance of Europol, and Interpol and Europol set up referral packages to all these countries."
GIVING VICTIMS A VOICE
The operation is a collaborative effort involving security and intelligence officers from nearly 60 countries worldwide, including those from Thailand’s DSI who took on the case in June 2017.
Following Interpol’s discovery of child sexual abuse materials produced in Thailand, US investigators identified the website IP address before Bulgaria’s Cybercrime Department took down the website’s server.
In New Zealand, the Department of Internal Affairs compiled information on website users for Interpol member countries. Email addresses were then cross-checked by the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and additional intelligence was provided.
An IP address pointed to a location in Adelaide, prompting the Australian police to join the operation.
Following Salangam’s arrest, the international collaboration led to two other major operations in Thailand’s Patthalung and Lampang. In the latter case, the offender was sentenced to 36 years and six months in jail. Police have also identified seven victims in a nursery where he was working.
"Investigations like these show two things,” said acting deputy assistant director of the HIS David Magdycz.
“They show the criminals that wherever you are in the world, you cannot hide, and law enforcement will track you down. Secondly, I think it shows that the victims have a voice. Law enforcement gives those victims a voice. Oftentimes, the victims of these crimes are young children and they don’t have a representative speak for them.”