News -- Australia 5 June 2008

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Hundreds under suspicion over child porn

Hundreds more people remain under suspicion of child pornography crimes after 90 Australians were caught in a police net as part of a massive global crackdown.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) warned there could be many more arrests in Operation Centurion, which is linked to a wider Interpol investigation involving 170 countries.

In Australia, about 1,500 people or individual computers have been identified in the investigation.

A policeman, four teachers and a sports administrator were among the Australians arrested or summonsed as a result of the six-month long operation.

Four children had also been removed from the homes of child porn suspects in Australia, police said.

“This is really in many ways the tip of the iceberg,” AFP assistant director of high tech operations Andrew Colvin told reporters.

Mr Colvin said federal police and state counterparts were still working their way through 2,800 IP addresses – the identifying digital codes linked to people’s computers.

“What we’re interested in is the networks – the passing, the sharing of images, the grooming, the procuring that goes on around these children,” he said.

“People do share these images. In some instances it’s a collectible.”

Three people have been arrested in the ACT, 23 in NSW, 41 in Queensland, four in South Australia, one in Tasmania, 17 in Victoria and one in Western Australia.

Suspended federal policeman Michael Edward Hatch, 38, has pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography and using a carriage service for child pornography.

His sentencing hearing was due to begin in the ACT Magistrates Court Thursday, but was adjourned until 2pm (AEST) Friday.

Mr Colvin said it was disappointing a federal officer had been charged.

“It’s always difficult when we come across one of our own in any investigation,” he said.

The investigation was triggered after a hacker posted 99 child porn images on a European website, which attracted 12 million hits in just 76 hours, including 2,800 from Australian IP addresses.

The four children removed from their homes were deemed to be in danger, but police could not confirm whether they appeared in any of the seized images or where they lived.

AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty said 300 search warrants had been executed and more than a million images seized.

“Some of the images involve adults as well as children. The children range from babies to 18 years of age,” he told reporters.

“We don’t know whether these children are still being the victims of child abuse.”

Mr Keelty said people had to prove themselves to become part of a child porn network by supplying images.

Mr Colvin said those arrested were all men from different walks of life, ranging in age from 19 through to 80.

Alan Lilburne Melchert, 59, a board member of the West Australian Sports Federation, appeared in Perth Magistrates Court on May 21 charged with three counts of using a carriage service to cause material to be transmitted to the person.

“I basically am a bit humiliated and ashamed that I’ve even looked at images like this that were freely available on the internet,” Mr Melchert told Network Ten.

He has been granted bail to appear in the same court on June 11.

In Queensland, the number of people to be charged is expected to double from the 40, including four teachers, who have already been arrested.

Gary Bruce Bechaz, 55, of Reedy Creek in Queensland, has been remanded in custody after being charged with using a carriage service to access child pornography and one count of possessing child exploitation material.

He is due to appear at Southport Magistrates Court on June 25.

In SA, arrests included three men aged 44, 52 and 60 from suburban Adelaide, a 69-year-old from the Adelaide Hills, two men aged 49 and 66 from the state’s south-east and a 42-year-old man from Yorke Peninsula.

In NSW, Steven Thomas Ross, from Wentworthville in Sydney’s west, appeared at Parramatta Local Court on May 26 charged with two counts of using a carriage service to access child pornography.

He was refused bail to appear at Parramatta Local Court on June 10.

All the people to appear in court have been charged with offences relating to the downloading and accessing of child pornography online, which carry a 10-year jail term.

No one has yet been jailed as a result of Operation Centurion.

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