Has Operation Ore left a scar on British justice? – TelegraphHas Operation Ore left a scar on British justice?
Scores of the men caught by Operation Ore may not be paedophiles, but victims of identity theft, says Alasdair Palmer.
By Alasdair Palmer
Published: 3:49PM BST 20 Jun 2009
There are some unspeakably vile people amongst the thousands of men swept up by Operation Ore, the police’s extensive investigation into paedophilia and child pornography. But it is becoming increasingly clear that a substantial portion of those who were convicted of offences such as “incitement to distribute indecent images of children” had committed no crime at all.
Thirty-five of the accused committed suicide. It’s not easy to think of many things that are worse than being convicted of a paedophile offence when you are innocent of that ghastly crime. Once you are stamped as a paedophile and placed on the Sex Offenders Register, you will probably lose your family, for your wife will divorce you, if only to ensure she can keep custody of the children whom you will now be forbidden to care for. You will lose your friends and you will lose your job.
That’s exactly what happened to dozens of men who either pled guilty or were convicted as a result of Operation Ore. The sole evidence against them was that their credit card details and computer passwords were found on the list of subscribers to websites with such repulsive names as “child rape”.
What could be clearer evidence of guilt than that? As their solicitors told them, it did not matter that their computers had been examined and found to be free of child pornography, or that they could produce alibis to show they could not have been at their keyboards when they were supposed to have signed up for the child porn. Judges and juries found the electronic data irrefutable.
But the electronic data wasn’t irrefutable. One simple possibility appears not to have occurred to the police or any of the lawyers assigned to the accused: that they had been the victims of identity theft. Someone had got hold of their credit card details and identified the perfect way to rack up charges: create a subscription service child-porn web site (it need not actually have any child porn on it, just a suitably disgusting name), then charge a subscription to the stolen card.
Very few people are going to complain to their credit card company, still less to the police, that they have been charged for visiting a site identified as “child rape” – for how do you prove that it wasn’t you? Some of the men had visited legal adult pornography sites on the internet, and given their credit card details so they could watch porn films. They had not been to child pornography sites – but once they had given their credit card details, it was very easy for someone else to do so using their credit card number.
It took a computer expert named Jim Bates to notice that on the full electronic log, the same credit card frequently subscribes to the same child porn site several times on the same day – and yet the “subscriber” never actually visits the site. Moreover, Mr Bates noticed that the same credit card number was being used to subscribe to child porn sites at the same time on three different continents.
Mr Bates’s discovery that the electronic data was riddled with fraud did not find favour with the police. His reward was to be smeared as a paedophile himself: the cops searched his house and accused him of – you’ve guessed it – “conspiracy to obtain indecent images of children”. Employed as an expert witness, he had, in the course of his work, examined computers with paedophile material. The police search was ruled illegal and last week he received back the material that they had confiscated.
Chris Saltrese, a Merseyside solicitor, believes he can demonstrate that scores of the men caught by Operation Ore are not paedophiles, but victims of identity theft. If his arguments convince the Appeal Court – with whom he has just lodged a specimen case – the police may be forced to apologise for their role in causing this country’s most colossal example of injustice. It will be too late for most of the innocent men they convicted. Their lives are in pieces. And they will never be able to put them back together.