4 S’porean victims found in multinational police operation targeting online child sexual abuse, Latest Singapore News - The New Paper

4 S’porean victims found in multinational police operation targeting online child sexual abuse

A recent multinational police operation targeting online child sexual exploitation and abuse material uncovered four Singaporean children among the victims.

Revealing this for the first time, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) told The Straits Times that the operation was the first for the offence that it organised involving other jurisdictions and its biggest such probe to date.

The operation took place between Feb 26 and March 29, and also involved the police in Hong Kong and South Korea.

“Four Singaporean victims have been identified thus far, and appropriate victim care has been accorded to the victims. 

“The SPF adopts a victim-centric approach to care for victims of online child sexual exploitation,” the police said without providing further details.

In their statement, the police said international cooperation is needed to tackle crimes against children effectively, and noted that the proliferation of the internet and social media has facilitated the production and sharing of child sexual abuse materials.

“Such cross-border operations are testament to the SPF’s commitment to play a proactive role in curbing the scourge of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

“By working with like-minded police forces internationally, we are able to strengthen the reach of our law enforcement efforts. Our children are only safe when our region is safe from child sexual abuse materials,” the police said, adding that they will spare no effort to protect children from such harm.

“We adopt a comprehensive approach comprising legislation, enforcement, technological tools, rehabilitation and international collaboration to deal with the threat of child sexual exploitation and abuse.”

Dr Annabelle Chow, principal clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology and Annabelle Kids, said child sexual abuse is traumatic due to the nature of the betrayal, feelings of powerlessness, stigmatisation and traumatic sexualisation.

“The creation and distribution of child sex abuse material add a layer of trauma.

“Victims face constant fear and a sense of vulnerability due to the permanence of the abuse material and the ease of its future distribution through the internet.

“They struggle with strong feelings of anger, guilt, humiliation and powerlessness, while also fighting a lifelong battle to preserve their integrity,” added Dr Chow.

She said many victims worry that the circulation of the distributed materials will never end, and fear being recognised by someone who has seen the materials.

“This worry is real, as victims can be identified and re-victimised through assault, stalking, shaming or blackmail, often resulting in further trauma,” she said, adding that victims may experience relationship difficulties, such as limited or no contact with their families, challenges in becoming parents themselves, and issues with spouses.

“Some report feeling over-sexualised in subsequent social and romantic relationships, struggling to comfortably take photos or selfies with friends, or wishing to hide from public interactions.

“These struggles can exacerbate interpersonal difficulties and feelings of isolation,” said Dr Chow.

Youngest arrested a 12-year-old

In the multinational operation, a total of 272 suspects were arrested across the three jurisdictions, including 28 in Singapore for allegedly possessing, gaining access to and distributing child abuse materials.

Among those arrested here were a seller of child abuse materials and seven individuals who had bought the materials from him.

The youngest nabbed in the cross-border operation was 12, and the oldest was 73. Among the 13 men arrested in Hong Kong were a teacher and a chef.

The Singapore police said the operation was their biggest for this type of crime to date.

“Officers from CID’s (Criminal Investigation Department) Specialised Crime Branch organised these operations and executed them with the support from land divisions’ investigation branches,” they added.

Those arrested in Singapore had used messaging platforms to advertise, communicate and confirm deals for the child sexual abuse materials. Many of them also used peer-to-peer sharing platforms to download and share the materials.

In April 2023, SPF revealed that it had investigated 96 cases related to child sexual abuse material offences since new laws to tackle the issue kicked in on Jan 1, 2020.

The new laws followed a review of the Penal Code to make it a crime to produce, distribute, advertise and possess child abuse material.

The changes were to cover offences relating to child abuse material in the light of the rapid development of technologies that allow for the fast, widespread and anonymous distribution of exploitative and abusive material.

In 2020, SPF started using Interpol’s international child sexual exploitation image and video database, which is housed in the Cyber Guardian Lab. The lab, located at the Police Cantonment Complex, allows investigators to extract electronic files from devices seized from the accused.

Following an operation in March 2023, investigators used artificial intelligence tools in the lab to sieve out child sexual abuse material from the electronic devices, such as computers, mobile phones and hard disks, that were seized.

The operation saw 23 men, aged between 22 and 61, arrested for child sexual exploitation activities.

The police said child sexual exploitation offenders may be referred to the Home Team Community Assistance and Referral Scheme (HT Cares), to determine the underlying factors triggering the offending behaviour.

The offenders may also be referred to social services agencies for long-term counselling.

The scheme, which was launched in January 2019, aims to reduce recidivism among offenders while they are undergoing investigations.

Child sexual exploitation offenders were included in the scheme in 2023.

SPF said the responses from such offenders referred to HT Cares that year were “positive and promising”. Some of the offenders arrested in the recent multinational operation were also referred to HT Cares.

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