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Legal Challenge To Web Child Abuse Inquiry

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One of Britain's biggest online paedophile inquiries is to be challenged in the court of appeal amid allegations from campaigners that hundreds of men have been wrongly convicted in a mass miscarriage of justice.

For more than two years a small group of experts have claimed that Operation Ore, the police inquiry into thousands of British men, was tainted because the database at the centre of the investigation contained evidence of widespread credit card fraud. Their allegations will be tested for the first time in the appeal court within weeks, when a judge examines a test case that could expose a huge miscarriage of justice, lawyers say.

The single judge will decide whether the case should go to a full appeal.

Chris Saltrese, the solicitor representing the convicted man, Anthony O'Shea, said: "If his appeal is successful the convictions of others for the same offence will fall too. We are talking in the hundreds and we say this is a huge miscarriage of justice."

An estimated 39 men have killed themselves as a result of being arrested and prosecuted during the Ore inquiry, and the details of every individual who was convicted or cautioned have been placed on the sex offenders register.

Senior officers in Ceop, the child exploitation and online protection unit, who co-ordinated the inquiry, have been anticipating the test case for some time. They are adamant that Ore was an extremely successful operation, which led to more than 2,600 British men who downloaded images of child abuse, or attempted to, being brought to justice. The vast majority of them pleaded guilty.

Operation Ore began in 2001 after the conviction in America of a couple behind Landslide Inc, an online trading company that provided access to adult pornography and child abuse images.

US investigators passed the names of 7,100 Britons on the Landslide database to the national criminal intelligence service, a forerunner of Ceop.

The last prosecutions in Ore took place earlier this year.

O'Shea's case is one of an estimated 200 or more involving men who were convicted of incitement to distribute indecent images of children. A father of two, he was jailed for five months in 2005 for two counts of incitement to distribute indecent photographs of children and three of attempted incitement to distribute indecent images. A lesser charge than possession, incitement was used in those cases where someone's details were on the Landslide database but there were no images found on the suspect's computer or in his home.

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Operation Ore is the UK's biggest ever IT crime investigation, but expert witness Duncan Campbell reveals that many prosecutions were founded on falsehoods

They arrive without warning at six in the morning. Drowsily rising, Adam Smith finds two polite, suited men. 'Police. May we come in?'

The scene starts to shift. 'I am arresting you on suspicion of possessing and distributing child pornography. We have a search warrant.' Behind their backs, Smith sees a flurry of others moving in. They are firm but not aggressive - they know they are dealing with a middle-class, educated professional with no criminal history.

A female officer corners his wife and asks her if she knew her husband was a paedophile. Would she please make up an excuse for the kids not going to school today? A family social worker will be coming over to interview them - in case her husband has been abusing his own children.

Politeness is maintained at the police station. Booked in, interviewed. They ask him to confirm his credit card number and the email addresses he used in 1999. They show him a copy of a credit card bill they have already got from his bank. They point to a payment to Landslide Productions. 'You paid for child pornography; that's what that is.' He says 'no' and that he's never heard of that company.

The facts they put so confidently seem to fit, except that Smith has never had any interest in children other than being a good dad.

In one day, for no cause he can understand, Smith has become a pariah, one of the most hated, baited people in the country, a suspected child-molesting paedophile. In the months ahead, it will only get worse.

Even if his computer is eventually found to contain nothing more sexually unusual than the proportions of Samantha Fox, he faces months of fearing trial, stigma and possible jail, accused merely of 'inciting' the sale of child porn, based solely on computer data found years ago in a Texas office block.

Mass arrests

Operation Ore launched on British TV screens on 20 May 2002. The BBC led on 'mass arrests over online child porn'. Thirty-six people were arrested, with promises of thousands more to follow. It made for compelling television, and provoked a rash of tabloid activity, but it also led to increased pressure on the police to bring the remaining thousands to justice.

Unfortunately, not all the evidence presented was quite as clear cut as it seemed. Clearly visible on the bulletin was a computer screen displaying Exhibit One of Operation Ore. In the middle of the screen were the words 'Click Here CHILD PORN'.

According to witness statements sworn by the US detective Steven Nelson and US Postal Inspector Michael Mead, this was the front page of Landslide Productions Inc, a company at the centre of child porn allegations. To go further, they testified, those prosecuted must have clicked on 'Enter'. They would then be taken to a page that proclaimed itself as 'the most controversial site on the Web ... no legal content ... phedophilias [sic]... all sick, all sex maniacs'. Click on and they would be taken to 'Lolita World', and from there, said Nelson, to a host of child porn websites offered by Keyz, a separate service offered by Landslide.

The Metropolitan Police Paedophile Unit let the BBC cameras in on the planning process for Operation Ore raids for a series shown a year ago: 'Police Protecting Children'. At the start of the show was a PowerPoint briefing for the raiding teams. Slide 1 showed the 'Click here' banner, with the legend 'First they are into an adult site. And choose to go to a child site'.

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In 2005, PC Pro revealed how computer evidence used against 7,272 people in the UK accused of being paedophiles had been founded on falsehoods. The misleading evidence, which claimed that every user of a Texas porn portal had to click on a banner advertising child porn to access illegal websites, was withdrawn last summer.

'It's specifically not alleged that [the accused] would have... seen a banner saying "Click Here Child Porn",' a British court was told.

The climb-down came too late for many: between then and now, the death toll of those who have killed themselves under pressure of the investigations in 'Operation Ore' has risen from 33 to 39.

Hundreds of police raids across Britain found no evidence that many suspects possessed, or were even interested in, child pornography. Because of the huge volume of computers and disks seized for examination, police high-tech crime capabilities were reportedly crippled for years.

Now, PC Pro can exclusively reveal that not only did police evidence in Operation Ore pretend users had asked for 'child porn', but that many of the Britons who have been publicly branded dangerous paedophiles were merely victims of systematic credit card fraud - some of it run by a Mafia crime family - and had never subscribed to the websites.

Part 2: The secret videotape

Part 3: Carding rackets

Part 4: The Soprano Connection

Part 5: The minister and the FBI

Part 6: Wide-scale fraud

Part 7: The rockstar fraudster

Read Parts 2-7 at the link.

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