Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nine Canadians arrested in int'l child porn probe

Nine Canadians have been arrested as part of an international child pornography ring that provided "custom-made" sex abuse videos, authorities said Tuesday.

About 90 other Canadians are being investigated in the same international probe.

Among those arrested are a scout leader from Ontario and a Vancouver resident who allegedly positioned a telescope in his home to overlook a neighbouring school yard.

Details of the international probe "Operation Koala" were released at a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday morning.

Europol, who is heading the investigation, contacted Canadian authorities in 2007 to let them know they found about 600 Internet addresses linked to Canada.

Canadian authorities narrowed the list down to 98 individuals.

"The evidence indicates that those in possession of this material did not find it accidentally," said RCMP Supt. Earla Kim McColl in charge of Canada's National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre.

"They sought it out. They previewed the samples. They paid in advance and they waited for a password to download the videos," she said.

Not all Canadian customers have been identified, a Canadian official said but the investigation is continuing.

In Canada, 18 law agencies, seven provinces, and 40 cities and municipalities were involved in the investigation.

In Ontario, four people have been arrested in connection with the investigation, according to Ontario Provincial Police Insp. Andy Stewart.

The most recent arrest was made in Ontario's Peel region where a suspect was charged two weeks ago.

The suspect works in the community as a Big Brother to local children.

However, there are no accusations the suspect had any inappropriate relations with children.

He and three other suspects in Ontario have been charged with accessing and possessing child pornography. It was not immediately known if the other suspects worked with children as well.

According to a Europol news release issued in November, customers of the site had the option of interacting with the children that appeared on camera. They could buy them lingerie to wear or have them say the customer's name. A customer could also opt to be in the video.

At the news conference Tuesday, European officials said one customer paid extra to have the child call him on the phone during the photo shoot.

Europol also alleged the lingerie the young girls were wearing were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

"We are not aware of any Ontario suspect involved in that capacity," Stewart told CTV.ca Tuesday morning before the news conference.

Stewart, the manager of the child pornography section of the OPP, said he doesn't expect to make any other arrests in Ontario regarding the case. However, he said there are still several addresses that have come up that are under investigation.

He also said Canadian officials didn't take part in the earlier news conference because they were still investigating the role Canadians played in the international probe.

"Most of the cases are tied up now," he said. "We're in a better position to speak about it."

Operation Koala

According to Europol, most of the material was produced in the Ukraine in a private studio. Others were produced in Belgium and the Netherlands

Europol officials were tipped off to the production ring after coming across a child abuse video in Australia. Their investigation led them to an Italian national whom authorities allege is the sole producer of the offensive material.

Police allege the 42-year-old man sold over 150 self-made videos of underage girls. One video showed a father abusing his two daughters, aged nine and 11.

The website reportedly had 2,500 customers from 19 countries.

So far, 23 child victims between the ages of nine and 16 have been identified.

"Among those arrested were several persons working in trusted positions, such as school teachers and swimming instructors," the Europol news release said.

"Thousands of computers, videos and photographs were seized," it continued to say. "In a large number of cases, more than a million files and pictures were found."

Canada's Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day released a statement saying the country remains committed to fighting child abuse and exploitation.

"We will continue to work with our domestic and international partners to address this terrible crime," he said in the statement. "In Budget 2007, we invested $6 million to help protect children from online predators and to combat human trafficking.

"We will continue to extend our full support to Operation Koala and other similar investigations that help bring those who sexually abuse children to justice."

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