Belgian authorities working in partnership with Europol have convicted four suspects as part of an ongoing international probe into a paedophile ring that abused children just a few months old.
Federal police in Belgium said on Tuesday that a court in Brussels had convicted four men in “one of the largest cases of sexual abuse of minors ever known,” with authorities cooperating on investigations into further suspects across no less than 44 countries worldwide.
The probe began in 2015 after one of the men was caught taking photos of children playing naked on a beach in Belgium. His arrest led police to another suspect in the town of Wetteren in East Flanders, where they discovered more than 15 terabytes of child abuse images.
The database reportedly contained more than nine million pictures and videos. Police described the quantity of images and footage as “unprecedented,” with mostly male victims all under the age of 13, and some as young as just a few months old.
The investigative body claimed the abuse was “particularly serious” and that, “in addition to physical injuries, they might cause significant psychological damage to the victims, marking them for life.”
It added that being exposed to such “disgusting images and messages on a daily basis” was hard even for veteran investigators.
So far, Europol has assisted Belgian police in identifying 90 suspects, 24 of whom are located in Belgium, and at least 110 of their victims.
Four of the suspects convicted on Tuesday, including the man who was caught taking photographs on the beach, received sentenced ranging from five to 16 years, Belgian press agency Belga reported. A fifth defendant is reportedly undergoing psychological evaluation.
Among the defendants, three are from Belgium, while one is from The Netherlands and another from the UK, according to Child Focus, an anti-abuse NGO. They are all reportedly under 40, and either have children themselves or work with minors.
The men reportedly filmed themselves abusing several children and later added the recordings to the database. They attempted to establish predatory contact with minors through such social media sites as Omegle.
Child Focus, which acted as a civil party in the trial on behalf of the unidentified victims, criticised the “exceptional softness” of the indictment. Many of the suspects will have time served in preventative detention deducted from their sentences.
The NGO claims that the risk of repeat offending from the abusers is high, adding that “the sentences are a slap in the face for all the victims.”
“It gives a totally wrong signal to (potential) authors and to the general public,” it added.
Belgium has attracted criticism over the past few decades for its perceived permissiveness toward major child sexual exploitation scandals. A recent Amnesty International survey estimated that one in four under 19 in the country has been victim of rape, and that 53% of such cases never make it to trial.
According to Europol, the crackdown has also led to trials in other countries like Australia, where a suspect was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison. The sting, dubbed Operation Gargamel after the villain from the children’s television program The Smurfs, continues as authorities from all around the world cooperate in identifying other victims and suspects.