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This crime only requires poverty, internet, and a distant buyer
victims of a new type of crime. A monster conceived by the digital era.
The sight of these sandals. Two pink leather sandals with a small metal buckle on the sill. In size two years. They lie on the ground in the afternoon sun quite undramatically like sandals and dead things do. But they lie there, because a two-year-old girl has suffered, because a man in an entirely different country caused her suffering, when he was sitting in front of his computer, perhaps unaware that he was about to destroy a child.
We are in the mountains near the Philippine capital Manila, in a hidden safe house that 45 children and youth call their home. Half of the children have been exposed to a crime which was impossible to commit only a few years ago. They are victims of livestream abuse, also called webcam paedophilia, where a person, often on the other side of the planet – orders sexual abuse of children over the internet, after which a facilitator in the Philippines commits and organises the ordered abuse of children in the Philippines. The abuse is played live on webcam to the client, who can watch it at the comfort of his own home. Typically, it all takes place on open and well-known internet services – Skype, Messenger, FaceTime and is paid through widespread payment services such as Western Union and PayPal.
On Tuesday 23 May (2017) judgment is passed in the case against a 70-year-old Danish man from Brøndby. He is accused of 346 incidents, over the period 2011-2016, of having ordered sexual assaults on Philippine children down to the age of three years, including rape of children below the age of 12. He pleads not guilty to the latter. He admits to having spent approx. DKK 80,000 (+/ – 10.000 euros) on so-called assault shows. Each of them have allegedly cost him 300-400 krone (+/- 40-50 euros).
The man from Brøndby never touched his victims, never visited the Philippines, and has – prior to this – never been convicted of sexual abuse. He is the grandfather of four and has lived in Brøndby with his Thai wife. During the first court interrogations in the beginning of March, the 70-year-old explained his livestreaming abuse was meant to “help” the children. “They lack money for food, the parents are ill and need to go to hospitals”, he said, and “I have the weakness that I find it diffcult to say no, when they ask for help.”
Also in Africa
The man explained in court in Glostrup that when he first started to search the internet, he was flooded with offers of abuse shows. His case is not the first, but it is the biggest in Denmark. In fact, Flemming Kjærside, police superintendent with the Danish National Police’s Cyber Crime Centre, claims he has not even heard of a case of this magnitude on a global scale. Of the type of crime, he says: “It is outrageous filth. The perpetrator is sitting at home in his living room ordering abuse of children that live in countries with hunger, poverty, and natural disasters. Families expose their own children to abuse to get food on the table. It is grotesque.” Last year, the European Police cooperation Europol wrote that this type of crime is spreading still. In court, a Danish expert from Europol told that the livestreaming abuse has “exploded” in the Philippines.
Recently, Danish police has also focused their attention on countries in Africa. Out of consideration for the investigations, Flemming Kjærside does not want to be specific about which countries. According to Flemming Kjærside, the countries are characterised by undergoing a technological quantum leap in internet access, while the rest of the development of the country has not followed the same pace as that of technology.
Distance increases roughness
The Philippines is such a country. The slum areas of the capital have an age structure, which is like stepping into a swarming kindergarten with very few adult teachers. A concrete pipe is something you use to sleep in. A churchyard is something you use for dumping garbage or as a playground. Even in these areas the residents have mobile phones with internet access or, as a minimum, access to an internet café. Technology is cheap, the internet access is good. If you don’t have money to buy a phone, you can get a quick loan.
This type of crime shows how globalisation can present itself in a form, where it makes the human absent from its own actions. The feeling of distance itself is known to most of us from our daily lives, when we buy a cheap T-shirt on the internet, are happy about the price without relating it to whom made it and under which circumstances it was made in Cambodia, China, Bangladesh, India, or the Philippines. Had we been physically present in the factory, we might have felt a heavy responsibility for how the t-shirt was produced and then rejected it. Our purpose is not to make a comparison between the purchase of cheap t-shirts and the purchase of sexual abuse of children, but to demonstrate how globalisation and digitisation can intensify that sense of distance from the victims.
Over the past few years, the Sexological Clinic in Copenhagen has had several Danish treated for livestreaming abuse, and their experience is there is a characteristic way this group of clients shakes off responsibility. Chief physician at Sexological Clinic, Ellids Kristensen says: “They distance themselves from the fact that they harm another human being. They excuse themselves from what they did by claiming the abuse was not physical. Some even deny the abuse, because it feels so unfamiliar with what they otherwise stand for in their lives.”
The 70-year-old man from Brøndby had the same self-evaluation during questioning: “Maybe it was not so real for me. It was happening on a screen”, he said. In court, the 70-year-old explained that he preferred girls from 13 years onwards. His chats to people in the Philippines show that he wrote “from 10 to 7 ok” and “if girl 7, there nice to”.
Among other things, he is accused of directing two underage siblings to have intercourse with each other, and coaching a 18-year-old mother towards violating her own daughters of about four and six years. Ellids Kristensen underlines that the internet abuse may become even more violent than other violations due to the distancing process, where the perpetrator in Denmark “can get to remote control another person to commit types of abuse that the Danish man would never commit himself.”
Love your family
The Philippine safe house in the mountains is run by the NGO Visayan Forum Foundation. For 26 years, the organisation has tried to fight modern slavery. In 2009, its founder and leader Cecilia Flores-Oebanda came across the phenomenon of livestream abuse for the first time. A nine-year-old girl had been exposed to the crime. Just like the perpetrators feeling distanced from their crime, so do the victims doubt the severity of what has happened to them, Cecilia Flores-Oebanda explains: “It is difficult for children to understand these relations and to understand that their abuse was ordered from abroad. They are consequently being told that they were online models.”
Online models have a glow of glamour to it, but usually the children come from the poorest social classes. The 45 children and teens in the house of Visayan Forum sleep in small dormitories with closely arranged bunk beds. They each have a small cabinet. If they need time alone, they can walk down to a small piece of grass land, where the children have painted the stones on the ground.
“Smile always” is written on a stone. “Love your family” on another.
The theme of family is incredibly sensitive to the children. In many cases, the families receive financial compensation for the livestream abuse.
In a number of the counts that the 70-year-old is accused of, the parents are directly involved in the crimes as sexual abusers or as witnesses, for example this count: “the accused (…) directed a girl of about 9 years to perform oral sex on a girl of about 8 years, while a 46-year-old woman, allegedly the mother of the 8-year-old held her hand.”
Cecilia Flores-Oebanda says with a deep sigh: “Children trust their parents and trust that their parents will protect them.”
The families sometimes repeat the evasive explanation of the perpetrator. They shirk responsibility by saying that the perpetrator from abroad did not physically touch their children. The facilitator in the Philippines frequently denies any responsibility for the actual abuse by claiming that the order came from foreign westerners. All parties involved in the crime wash their hands in a false sense of innocence.
Locals protect criminals
Cecilia Flores-Oebanda says that there are entire communities in which livestream abuse has become almost an acceptable source of income. An example is the village Og Lbabao on the island of Cebu.
“Some of the Philippine facilitators are protected by the local community. The parents deny any knowledge of the abuse, and thus also protect for example the neighbour who has committed the offences, because it points back towards the parents’ own knowledge,” she says.
In Visayan Forum’s house the children can sleep safely, go to school and learn to make independent decisions. The children must for instance learn to manage their own finances by having a bank account.
“We cannot change what happened, so we are looking for the star inside them now”, says Cecilia Flores-Oebanda. “They must learn that their value as human beings is not tied up with sexuality. But first and foremost, we must show them that they are loved.”
No dream about spiderman
None of the abused children from the case against the 70-year-old live in Visayan Forum’s safe house, and the police assess, that several hundred children are involved. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda worries: “when they are not here with us, where are they then? That is the terrifying question. Have those children been saved, or have they become victims of new abuse?”
We cannot give any answers before Tuesday. Western Copenhagen Police inform us that they will not comment on the cooperation with foreign authorities until sentence has been passed.
Cecilia Flores-Oebanda herself has been in the forefront of several rescue operations targeted towards children in houses with livestreaming abuse. She would, however, prefer to pass the responsibility for the rescue actions on to the Philippine government. “I have no dream of being spiderman, but I participated in the actions to send a signal to the government that the crimes could be solved”, she says.
In 2013, a special anti-cybercrime unit was set up by the Philippine police. In the investigation department, the police produce statistics: in 2013, the department received 21 tips regarding livestream abuse. In 2016 the figure had risen to 213. Thus, an increase of a good 900 per cent.
And this figure only includes tips, for which someone has approached the station in Manila in person with a suspicion or a report. Livestreaming abuses are not only difficult to understand. They are also difficult to clear up.
The abuse is not taped, it takes place in the present and it is not stored anywhere for posterity. When the internet connection is interrupted, the proof is gone, and you can walk out into your garden to mow the lawn and delude yourself into believing that it never happened.
In March 2015, the Danish police arrested 10 men in an action called ‘Operation Kvaser’. The men were suspected for having ordered and paid for livestreaming the abuse of children in the Philippines. However, charges were never made in any of the 10 cases. Several of the suspects admitted having purchased livestreams from the Philippines, “but they denied that children were involved,” explains Flemming Kjærside.
The police could not identify the victims and therefore document their ages. In the case against the 70-year-old the police are not in possession of any of the livestream recordings.
More cases on the way
Danish police were tipped off about the man by the FBI and could press charges against him based on the combination of his extensive chat orders with age references, his chat messages during the abuse, and the money transfers. When Danish investigators come across suspected Philippine citizens, they send the names to the police in the Philippines.
But according to police superintendent Flemming Kjærside, the industry has grown so big that the police in the Philippines “are assailed with requests for assistance from police authorities all over the world”. The judgment that will be passed on Tuesday will have great signal value for future child abusers in Denmark.
Up until this date, only one other Danish man has been convicted for livestreaming the abuse of children from the Philippines. He was sentenced to 3.5 years.
Jesper Madsen, defence counsel of the 70-year-old, has pleaded for 3-3.5 years of imprisonment. Prosecutor, Helene Brædder, pleads for a detention order. She speaks of the triangle condition, how the crime arises out of three components: The internet, extreme poverty, and a paedophile buyer. “We cannot remove poverty and the internet, but we can remove the paedophile by detention, and thus send a signal that you are not less dangerous, just because you sit at home ordering abuse”.
Police superintendent Flemming Kjærside informs that the police have several “exhaustive” cases on the way.
In 2013, the Dutch children’s right organisation Terre des Hommes created the decoy Sweetie, a computer made model that looked and moved like a 10-year-old Philippine girl. “Sweetie” offered sex shows against payment on the web.
In just two months over a 1000 real men wrote to what they thought was a real girl. The organisation passed the information on to Interpol. The offensive approach with “Sweetie” cannot be employed by Danish police, says police superintendent Flemming Kjærside: “We have the Danish Administration of Justice Act to relate to, and it states among other things that the police may not incite a crime”.
He explains that Danish police spent many resources on investigating the Sweetie cases in Denmark, and that the work led to a hospital order against a man and to 20 days of imprisonment of another man for indecent exposure, but “instead of investigating abuse of fictitious children, we would rather focus our effort on those Danes that order abuse of real children, and unfortunately there seem to be many.”
Ivy, 19 years
A man told Ivy that she was pretty. She had never heard that before. Three days later, she travelled with the man to Manila. She was 12 years old.
“When I was 12 years old I met my sponsor. He was on a summer visit with some family that my parents knew. He said that I was beautiful and that westerners would find me pretty. I giggled and laughed. No one had ever said something like that to me. He said that if I went with him to Manila, he would pay for my schooling. He had also helped other girls, many of them were already in other countries, he said. I really wanted to see Manila.
We were with 12 brothers and sisters, I am number 11. I grew up on the island of Mindanao. I love my parents. If I participated in a dance competition when I was a child and win money, I gave it to my parents. When I collected garbage, and was paid by the kilo, I also gave the money to my parents.
They did not want me to travel with the man, but since we knew his family, I managed to convince them that it was best for our family. Three days after our first meeting, I travelled with him to Manila. We travelled by ship. I had never tried that before. Manila was so entirely different. There were so many people, so many cars, so much money, and so many foreigners. People bought coffee at fine cafes. He lived in Quezon City, in the outskirts of Manila. He had his own house, in which I moved in together with four other children. He gave me good food and a pretty, pink dress; I love pink. He cut my hair and taught me to walk fashion shows, taught me to stand in front of the mirror and look pretty.
After about a month I started working in front of the camera. He said to me “Come and say hi to my friend.” His friends were on the dating site filipinocupid.com. They became my clients. On the dating site he wrote that I was 18 years old. I could see the men’s white faces. I had clients on webcam and in rel life. Some white men came to Manila. We went to a hotel. My sponsor said that I was his daughter.
He enrolled me at a good school exactly as promised. I grew up in a family in which respect is important. I respected my sponsor as my father. But he did not treat me like a daughter. He woke me up early in the morning when the others were asleep and asked me to do sexual things with him in front of the camera. He said that he gave me a good life and that I should not be ungrateful. I thought so too. I wanted to follow him. I did not think that I was entitled to anything else at the time.
I followed him for five years. I did not want my family to worry about me. We were with several victims in the house, also children of seven, five and one year. My older sister was a victim too, it was arranged for her to come to my sponsor. I asked her to come, so that I would be safe. But I was wrong and my sister ended up contacting the police.
In November 2014, we were rescued. We were questioned at the police station. Today, my sponsor is in prison. I have not seen my family, but my sister has helped me to tell them what has happened. Sometimes, they call me. I have lived here for almost three years. The one-year-old girl was rescued too, and also lives here.
I dream of becoming a stewardess. I would like to travel all the world. My best friend is God. Even if I cannot see him, I can talk to him. I speak loudly to him every day, for instance when I am in bed. I have learned that I can trust other people. But not blindly.
I have also learned to forgive, and I have forgiven my sponsor. I want him to be in prison. But if God forgives all people, I can forgive too. I don’t want my experiences with the webcam to bring pain into my life. To avoid this, I have to forgive.”
Mary-Ann, 17 years
17-year-old Mary-Ann tells that she was exposed to livestreaming abuse by her neigbours at the age of nine. She gave the money to her parents.
Our neighbours were a gay couple. They were friendly. When I was nine years old they said to me that I could come with them and earn money for my family. Other children were there already. I did not understand what I was supposed to do. I could not see the faces of the men, only the lower part of their bodies.
Sometimes we were with four children at a time in front of the camera. We were about the same age. I don’t think our parents knew it. After each show, I received 100 pesos (+/- DKK 13, 1,70 euros).
I gave the money to my parents, or bought food for them. They did not ask where I got the money from. I am child number seven in our family line-up of 9 children.
After a year, my aunt found out about what was going on, and she called the police. I believe that the other children went home to their families after questioning. I went here. I was ten years old. Over the past seven years, I have seen my parents four times. They live on the island of Cebu, you see. One of the homosexual men went to prison, and a client from Pennsylvania also went to prison.
What happened is in the past. This is my home. Here, I spent my years of youth and learn to become an adult.
If you get sad, it is good to have hobbies, so that you get to think of something else. I like reading, dancing, and playing volleyball. If I get really sad, I sit peacefully on the swing in the garden. I have asked, if I could adopt a dog. But we are not allowed to have animals here. In the future, I would like to become a vet. I also hope that I get to live abroad. For instance, in the USA. There is plenty of work in the USA. My favourite book is the bible, because it holds many stories of miracles.
Aileen, 17 years
Aileen is 17 years. She talks about how her sponsor found Western clients through a fully normal dating site. She calls her sponsor for Tatai. It means father. It is the same man who recruited and abused Ivy.
I grew up on the island of Mindanao with my grandmother, because my parents left us to her, while they went away and worked. I have six siblings. My mother picked me up later and brought me to Quezon City in Manila.
We lacked money, and then our neighbour offered that he could pay for my studies. He didn’t. But I practically moved into his house when I was 12 years.
Other children also lived in the house with the man, but on the third floor of the house. I was on the second floor.
He created a profile for me at filipinocupid. It is a normal dating site. On the dating site, he wrote that I was 18 years old, but really, I was 12. Through the dating site he organised livestreaming with the clients. I could see the clients, and to begin with, I should undress and show my body. I sat on a chair in front of the camera and looked at the client. That is how it started, and later it became more sexual. He touched me, while the men at filipinocupid said what he should do.
I was paid 500 pesos for a day in front of the webcam (+/- DKK 67, 9 euros). I gave that money to my mother. I just said that “tatai has given money”. Tatai means father. He could talk in a certain way, so that you did what he said.
I was there for almost three years. Over time, the abuse intensified in brutality, but at that point in time I did not know that this was unusual. Gradually, I was brought to various clients out in the city, we picked up the Western men out at the airport and took them to the hotel. They came from Australia, the USA and Europe. My sponsor was always in the hotel room.
At one point, we flew to the island of Cebuto to introduce me to a client. On our trip back to Manila, a new girl came along. I was saved by the police in 2014, when a policeman pretended to be a client. My sponsor is in prison for rape and human trafficking.
When I arrived at the house, I first thought that it was a bit of a prison. Now, it is my home, where I feel safe. I go to school, I have learned to play the guitar. I can make human beatbox. I would like to become a stand-up comedian. It is nice to make other people laugh. Sometimes, I perform in front of the other girls. Then I just stand there, cracking jokes. I don’t have to write them down beforehand.
I see my mother at some meetings that Visayan Forum organise. I don’t think she knew what was going on. She didn’t ask how I got money and I didn’t tell.
The real names of the girls are anonymised for their safety and future.