Teacher in Hong Kong among 272 arrested in child sexual abuse raids coordinated by Singapore agencies

Singapore police and their foreign counterparts conducted raids at 236 spots during a cross-border crackdown. - PHOTOS: SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE via The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN): A teacher in Hong Kong, who allegedly persuaded children to send him nude photos of themselves, was among 272 people arrested in an operation coordinated by Singapore targeting online child sexual exploitation activities.

The operation, which took place between Feb 26 and March 29, 2024, saw the involvement of Singapore police, including the Criminal Investigation Department, and their foreign counterparts in Hong Kong and South Korea.

In total, law enforcement agencies raided 236 spots across the three jurisdictions. Thirteen men were arrested in Hong Kong, including a teacher, a chef, a technician and a retiree.

The teacher, who was suspended after his arrest in Hong Kong, had worked in a school and was primarily responsible for management, Acting Senior Superintendent Hui Yee-wai of Hong Kong police’s cyber security and technology bureau told the South China Morning Post.

“As part of his tactics, the suspect allegedly took the initiative to approach children via social media platforms and gained their trust by chatting with them.

“He then exploited their curiosity about sex and lured them into sharing nude photos of themselves to him,” said the officer.

The man was detained on suspicion of procuring people under the age of 18 to make child pornography – an offence punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a HK$3 million (S$521,140) fine.

The Singapore Police Force (SPF) said that 28 people, aged between 18 and 59, were arrested here for allegedly possessing, gaining access to and distributing child abuse materials. They comprised a seller of child abuse materials, and seven individuals who bought the materials from him. Another 16 people, aged between 22 and 70, are assisting with investigations.

“Preliminary investigations revealed that some of the men obtained child abuse materials through messaging platforms,” said the police, which did not identify the platforms.

Nine of those arrested have been referred to the Home Team Community Assistance and Referral Scheme, where trained social workers try to understand the root cause of the offending behaviour and refer the offenders to an appropriate social service agency for counselling.

Electronic devices, including computers, mobile phones and storage devices, found at 44 locations in Singapore were seized in the operation in Singapore.

A previous report by the Britain-based charity Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) showed that a number of sites featuring child sexual abuse material were hosted in Singapore and South Korea.

In 2019, a South Korean national was indicted by a court in the United States for his operation of Welcome To Video, the largest child sexual exploitation market by volume of content.

The US-led operation led to seizure of approximately eight terabytes of child sexual exploitation videos.

The man, who was convicted in South Korea, was among 338 individuals arrested across the US, Britain, South Korea, Canada, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Spain Brazil, Australia, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The South Korean had advertised child sexual exploitation videos on the Darkweb.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) said Welcome To Video offered the videos for sale using the cryptocurrency bitcoin.

“The site itself boasted over one million downloads of child exploitation videos by users. Each user received a unique bitcoin address when the user created an account on the website.

“An analysis of the server revealed that the website had more than one million bitcoin addresses, signifying that the website had capacity for at least one million users,” said the DOJ.

At least 23 minor victims residing in the US, Spain and Britain, who were being actively abused by the users of the site, were rescued through the operation.

New laws

In January 2020, Singapore amended the Penal Code and introduced new laws to criminalise the production, distribution, advertising and possession of child abuse materials. The changes allowed for prosecution of Singapore citizens and permanent residents who commit such acts abroad.

According to a June 2023 report, the police have investigated more than 120 cases involving child sexual abuse materials since the amendments.

One of the worst cases involved a 36-year-old the prosecutors described as having an insatiable appetite for child pornography.

The man, who was jailed for two years in March 2023, had downloaded more than 13,600 files of child abuse material.

In an operation in March 2023, 23 men, aged between 22 and 61, were arrested in an islandwide operation in Singapore for possessing, distributing and gaining access to child abuse materials, circulating obscene materials and possessing obscene films.

According to WeProtect Global Alliance’s global threat assessment 2023, the volume of reported child sexual abuse material has increased by 87 per cent since 2019.

Increasingly, child sexual abuse materials are accessed on platforms like Telegram and Discord, a messaging network popular with gamers.

The Washington Post reported in March 2024 about a network of perpetrators on the two platforms who were seeking out children with mental health issues and blackmailing them into hurting themselves on camera.

Telegram did not respond to detailed questions about this network but said it removes “millions” of pieces of harmful content each day through “proactive monitoring of public parts of the platform and user reports”.

“Child abuse and calls to violence are explicitly forbidden by Telegram’s terms of service,” said a Telegram spokesman, adding that the platform has moderated harmful content on its platform since its creation.

However, Telegram had not responded to requests from SPF to remove access to accounts disseminating sexually explicit materials, Minister of State for Home Affairs Sun Xueling told Parliament in November 2023.

But she said there had been some progress in engagement with Telegram and that the Government will continue to work with them, and other online platforms, to better protect Singapore users from harmful content.

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies in Singapore have been given more powers to issue disabling, account restriction, access blocking and app removal directions to online services, other entities or individuals, when specified criminal offences are committed.

The Online Criminal Harms Act, which was passed in Singapore in July 2023, covers sexual offences such as the distribution of child sexual abuse material. - The Straits Times/ANN

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