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Sydney, April 20, 2020
Australian Federal Police (AFP) said today that 16 people in the country had been arrested after a two-year international investigation into a website where users paid to access child abuse material.
The two-year effort involved Australian law enforcement agencies and the United States Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and has resulted in the 16 people in Australia being charged with 738 child exploitation offences.
"Starting in 2018, matters were regularly referred to Australian authorities by HSI following their investigations into an online web site where users paid to access child abuse material," a press release from AFP said.
The investigation involved officers from state and territory police, working together with the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) and the Australian Federal Police’s Joint Anti Child Exploitation Teams.
Australian police partnered with international law enforcement, including investigators from the HSI office in Phoenix, Arizona, who initiated the investigation into an illicit online marketplace where users paid for access to child abuse material, the release said.
With the assistance of the HSI Cyber Crimes Centre, the HSI EL Paso Forensics Program, HSI International Operations, HSI Forced Child Labor Unit, INTERPOL and EUROPOL, information on registered users of the illicit marketplace was disseminated to multiple states in the United States and to international partners around the world, including Australian law enforcement.
The ACCCE-facilitated Australian response, Operation Walwa, captures the collective effort of the AFP, state and territory police and Joint Anti Child Exploitation Teams (JACETs).
In total, Australian investigators executed 18 search warrants and arrested 16 people on 738 charges.
Authorities were able to remove four Australian children from further harm, the release said.
AFP Assistant Commissioner ACCCE and Child Protection Lesa Gale said the results of Operation Walwa were a timely reminder of the risks associated with children being online.
“This has been a long-running joint effort by law enforcement across Australia and we’re happy to see the results that can be achieved when resources are used together, particular in the current online environment,” Gale said.
HSI Australia Attaché Adam Parks said the arrests came at a critical time.
“More so than ever, children are increasingly online for their schooling, to socialize with their friends and family, and to play games,” Parks said.
“Let this be a warning that law enforcement is undeterred by COVID-19 and remains on-duty to keep our children safe in Australia, the U.S., and online.”
Detective Superintendent Denzil Clark from the Queensland Police Service Child Abuse and Sexual Crimes Group said strong law enforcement partnerships and a whole-of-community response are crucial to protect children from online predators.
“Queensland Police will continue sharing our expertise and working collaboratively with our national, interstate and international counterparts to target those who pose a risk to children in our community,” Clark said.
Detective Superintendent John Kerlatec from the NSW Police Force Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad urged parents to speak to their children about the dangers associated with online conversations.
“At this time, particularly with more children online during COVID-19 restrictions, we are encouraging parents to remain vigilant and monitor their usage, as well as what websites they are visiting and who they may be speaking with.
“Across Australia, there are specialist officers that investigate the sexual exploitation of children online and via telecommunication systems, and through this national collaboration there is a strong focus on detecting and prosecuting those who seek to prey on children,” Detective Superintendent Kerlatec said.
Victoria Police JACET manager, Detective Acting Inspector Karen Bennett described the considerable effects these crimes have on children, their families and the wider community.
“These crimes see people using significant established networks to share child abuse material and take advantage of vulnerable children. They have devastating impacts for victims and the wider community,” Detective Acting Inspector Bennett said.
“Victoria Police will continue working closely with partner agencies to address this considerable issue both in Australia and overseas.
“We will continue to develop and employ various investigative techniques which allow us to target people actively grooming and attempting to procure children, and accessing child abuse material.”
Detective Superintendent Mark Wieszyk, OC Public Protection Branch of the South Australia Police said that the SA JACET is dedicated to combat child exploitation.
“SA JACET regularly works with overseas law enforcement agencies to keep children safe from exploitation,” Detective Superintendent Wieszyk said.
The ACCCE are committed to stopping child exploitation and abuse, and is at the centre of a collaborative national approach to combatting organised child abuse.
The Centre brings together specialist expertise and skills in a central hub, supporting investigations into child sexual abuse and developing prevention strategies focused on creating a safer online environment.