BERLIN – German prosecutors have dismantled an online platform for sharing images and videos showing sexual abuse of children, mostly boys, which had more than 400,000 members worldwide, they said on Monday.
The site, named “Boystown,” had been around since at least June 2019 and included forums where members from around the world exchanged images and videos showing children, including toddlers, being sexually abused. In addition to forums, the site had discussion forums where members could connect with each other in different languages.
German federal prosecutors described it as “one of the largest child pornography sites operating on the dark net” in a statement they released on Monday announcing the mid-April arrest of three German men who managed the site and a fourth that had posted thousands of images to it.
“This successful investigation has a clear message: those who prey on the weak are nowhere safe,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Monday. “We hold the perpetrators accountable and do what is humanly possible to protect children from these heinous crimes.”
Over the past decade, Germany has launched a government campaign that includes a special unit to investigate online crimes to tackle child sexual abuse. While this attempt has uncovered several sophisticated networks, tens of thousands of new cases of abuse are reported to authorities each year. Parliament passed a law that would toughen penalties for those convicted of child sexual exploitation or abuse last week.
Charged administrators of the “Boystown” site, aged 40 and 49, were arrested after raids on their homes in Paderborn and Munich, prosecutors said. A third man accused of being a director, 58, lived in the Concepción region of Paraguay, where he is being held pending his extradition.
Prosecutors said the men hosted the site on the dark net, which is only accessible by certain software and is used by criminals to communicate undetected. In addition to managing the servers and providing support to members, the accused men are said to be teaching users how to surf the site while minimizing the risk of detection or attracting suspicion.
A fourth man, 64, has been arrested in Hamburg on suspicion of uploading more than 3,500 images and videos of abuse to the site, as one of its most active members. He faces charges of belonging to the site and sharing material describing child sexual abuse.
A German police task force has spent months investigating the platform, its administrators and users in cooperation with Europol, the European Union’s police agency, and law enforcement authorities in Australia, from Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States, the release said.
None of the suspects have been identified by name, in accordance with German privacy laws.
Last month, the German parliament passed a law to expand the authorities’ ability to prosecute those suspected of harming children and to increase prison sentences for anyone convicted of child sexual abuse to a maximum of 15 years old. Those found guilty of child exploitation and abuse face up to 10 years in prison, double the previous maximum sentence.
Lawmakers pointed to criminal statistics which showed a 65% increase in the number of crimes involving the sexual exploitation or sexual abuse of children from 2018 to 2019, as proof that Germany must toughen its laws to protect children. Approval in front of the upper house is pending.
Last week, former national football player Christoph Metzelder was given a 10-month suspended prison sentence after being convicted of 26 counts of possessing and sharing photos of younger girls. 10 year old severely sexually abused. Mr Metzelder confessed to some of the charges and apologized to the victims, which the judge said he took into consideration in reducing his sentence.
But many Germans, including some of Mr Metzelder’s former teammates, protested that the punishment was too lenient.
“I don’t see how that is supposed to be a deterrent,” Lukas Podolski, who was a member of the 2014 squad that won the FIFA World Cup for Germany, told Bild newspaper. “Anyone who commits sins against children should be punished with the full weight of the law.”