The world takes a first step to halt abuse of its children

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The Independent Online
Some of the girls were so young that their parents personally delivered and fetched them from the solid three-storey house where they hoped to embark on a glittering career in modelling.

The man who received them, a 37-year-old former mechanic-turned-photographer, seemed pleasant enough, quickly winning them over with his charismatic manner and promises of international fame.

He agreed to pay the girls between pounds 5 and pounds 25 a session - big money by Hungarian standards. But pictures depicting his subjects fully clothed quickly developed into shots in swimsuits. From there, the descent into full-scale pornography was swift.

"Once the girls entered that house they were somehow spellbound and agreed to do whatever they were asked," said Istvan Nagy, who is heading the criminal investigation into the case, in the northern town of Eger. "Once they left it, they were too terrified to tell anyone, even their own parents, about what had happened."

Police believe that up to 50 girls aged between 10 and 15 may have been lured into posing nude and performing sex acts in front of the camera for a man with strong links to paedophile rings in western Europe and north America. They also suspect that, in addition to appearing in magazines and videos, the images of the victims may also have been transmitted to child porn users globally via the Internet.

"When we searched the house we found a whole library of pornographic material involving children and even animals," Mr Nagy said. "We also discovered that a special contact station had been set up on the Internet and that, in addition to western Europe and the US, there were clients from Saudi Arabia and Japan."

The growing sexual exploitation of children from eastern Europe and the trans- mission of child pornography via cyberspace feature prominently on the agenda of a ground-breaking international con- ference that opened in Stockholm yesterday.

The World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children aims to transform universal abhorrence of paedophilia into action against it.

"To abuse children is to abuse our future," the Swedish Prime Minister, Goran Persson, said. "We must go from words to deeds by developing strategies to fight these intolerable acts."

Estimates vary, but most experts believe more than two million children worldwide fall prey to the sex industry each year. South-east Asia, in particular Thailand and the Philippines, has long been favoured by Western child-sex tourists. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, eastern Europe has also been increasingly targeted.

The conference organisers, which include the Swedish government, Unicef and Ecpat, a lobby group pressing for an end to child prostitution in Asian tourism, have proposed a tightening of laws covering child prostitution and pornography; better enforcement of those already in place; much more money for educational programmes aimed at spelling out the dangers in vulnerable communities; and for rehabilitation programmes for the victims.

The British delegation, headed by the Home Office minister Timothy Kirkhope, an- nounced plans for legislation enabling the prosecution of Britons who commit sexual offences against children abroad.

In Australia, a 75-year-old man who has already been charged under the country's laws against child-sex tourism, was yesterday charged with 850 child-sex crimes committed in Australia.