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Nearly 50 Kiwis arrested in online child sex abuse operation

New Zealand’s ‘largest and toughest’ investigation ever into ‘horrific and devastating child sexual abuse material’ has seen 146 children from around the world brought to safety through hundreds of surveys.

Here in New Zealand, six children have been brought to safety and 46 people arrested, including a man who was a children’s sports coach and teaching assistant.

A man was also arrested. He denied being sexually exploited overseas, but was likely a “sex tourist”, officials said.

Internationally, the New Zealand-inspired operation was huge and the largest of its kind to come out of New Zealand.

It all started with a dodgy internet link retrieved by an electronic service provider in September 2019.

A Department of Home Affairs investigator identified approximately 32GB of files per link, including videos described as “some of the most sadistic sexual abuse, rape and torture of infants and children”.

A month later, DIA obtained account information from the service provider that indicated that more than 90,000 accounts internationally had owned or traded this set of child abuse images.

Dubbed “Operation H”, the news saw the DIA’s Digital Child Exploitation team coordinating an operation that brought together the FBI, Australian Federal Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, UK National Crime Agency, Europol and Interpol.

In a statement, the DIA said: “This is the largest and most challenging online child exploitation operation to be conducted since New Zealand.”

The DIA team is the lead agency for three New Zealand agencies that enforce laws prohibiting child sexual exploitation material. Where other nations have developed “centres of excellence”, New Zealand divides the work between the DIA, police and customs.

Hundreds of investigations have been launched across the world, the DIA said, and work began here with police and customs to identify offenders in New Zealand from February 2020.

DIA said 125 New Zealand-based accounts had been linked to the investigation. Internationally, 836 cases have been investigated.

“Due to the number of user accounts identified and the extremely egregious nature of the child sexual exploitation material involved, this is the largest joint child sexual exploitation operation in New Zealand.”

Digital Child Exploitation team leader Tim Houston said the global operation was a “major success” in taking down environments and networks that sought to exploit children.

“This operation will impact the global networks that deal with the most horrifying and damaging content, and we are extremely proud of the effect it will have on the lives of children around the world.”

The team had seized and reviewed “hundreds of thousands of child abuse material files” which were “some of the most egregious investigators that have been exposed to”.

“Many of the children featured in the images and videos were just infants exposed to obvious and intentional pain and suffering,” the DIA statement read.

Houston said the type of content — at the extreme end of the spectrum — was one that led those who searched for it to physically offend children.

“Many people who view content like this will continue to physically offend children, it is imperative that we are able to bring them to justice before they can do more damage.

“This is one of the largest online child sexual abuse investigations in the department’s history.” He praised the approach of the three agencies saying it was “another excellent example of inter-agency collaboration in Aotearoa”.

The international scale of the operation was reflected in statements provided by the DIA media team to law enforcement around the world.

In the UK, Sarah Blight, deputy director of the National Crime Agency against threats of child sexual abuse, said 450 people had been arrested, including people working in “positions of trust” such as primary schools and nurseries.

Others arrested worked in law enforcement, medical-related professions and as religious leaders.

“Other suspects were also applying for jobs working or volunteering with children,” she said.

The DIA provided a series of case studies, including a North Island man sentenced to four and a half years in prison on multiple charges of possession of child sexual abuse material – he was found with approximately 50,000 such records. DIA said there was no evidence he escalated into physical misdemeanor, worked as a teacher’s aide and was a local athletic trainer.

Another case study highlighted a South Island man with no criminal record, but with a known 20-year habit of using child sexual abuse material, as well as images of bestiality and torture.

The man’s cloud storage contained more than 27,000 child sex abuse files. When questioned, the man revealed that he regularly travels to Southeast Asia where he pays families to let him abuse their children on camera.

“Although the perpetrator denied engaging in sexual exploitation abroad, it is likely, based on the information obtained, that he was a sex tourist.”

Other case studies from around the world were provided, including one from the UK which saw two brothers arrested – one working night shifts in a children’s home. It was discovered that he had uploaded abusive images of child laborers. It was also discovered that her brother had hundreds of indecent images of children.

NEED HELP?

If you are a victim of a crime of child abuse or sexual abuse call Safe to Talk: 0800 044 334 Text 4334

If you are concerned about a child or young person who may be the victim of abuse, call the police on 105 or provide information to the police via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

You can also contact Oranga Tamariki on 0508 FAMILLE (0508 326 459).

If you are concerned about your online activity or someone else’s sexual behavior, contact:

Secure network: 09 377 9898

WellStop: 04 566 4745

STOP: 03 353 0257