Jaljith Thottoli, a 38-year-old medical transcriptionist from Kerala and Binu Phalgunan a journalist were alerted in November by friends about a group on messaging app Telegram called ‘Poombatta’ or butterfly in Malayalam. It was a group that could be accessed only through an invite.
Though Jaljith has previously busted Facebook groups with people who had sexual interest in children, he had never expected this kind of depravity.
On November 22, as Jaljith joined the group, the group administrator called ‘MLPM’ was busy sharing a series of pictures of a young girl. The girl (age around 9 or 10) wearing a red necklace and reading a Malayalam magazine can be seen in various states of undress.
The group was a thriving platform for child sex abusers, and photographs and videos of toddlers and older children were being shared constantly. From nude images of children to violent sexual crimes against children, the group regularly shared explicit content for its nearly 360 members.
“The pictures and videos kept coming. They were horrific. Many of these children could have been groomed as they seem to have willingly posed for these pictures,” Jaljith tells TNM.
On November 22 itself, Jaljith informed the Inspector General of Crime Branch about the group. These people, most using fake ids and names, were so brazen that the pinned message on the group said, “This is no place for people who are not into child porn.”
Within four days, Jaljith with the help of friends tracked down four mobile numbers through which the administrator ‘MLPM’ was operating.
After observing the group for a month, on Thursday, the Malappuram police arrested a 25-year-old man, who was the administrator or ‘MLPM’. Sharaf Ali, a native of Vandoor in the district, is an M.Com graduate, the police told TNM.
Sharaf Ali has been booked under Section 14, 15 of the POCSO Act and 67 B (ab) of the Information and Technology (IT) Act. He has been remanded to judicial custody in Perinthalmanna.
Sharaf Ali is the administrator of 4 groups including a group on wife swapping and another group of porn videos. He was part of 51 Telegram groups, confirmed police.
“The content is mostly catering to Malayalis, the admin used to emphasise on that very often. When someone shared foreign porn videos, the admin would ask them not to do so; they have even said that the group needed to share more Indian content, catering to Malayalis. There was one image of a girl reading a Malayalam magazine,” says Jaljith.
The admin also asked "non-participating" members to share content and engage regularly. He warned them that they would be thrown out otherwise.
“No other porn content was allowed in the group. Admin's number or anybody else's number wasn’t visible to others. You could only see their handle name, which is fake. On each day, at least 30-40 videos/pictures got shared in the group and there was a pattern to how the admin ran the group. Maximum content got shared between 9.30pm to 11pm. There were no videos or pictures of boy children, only girls,” says Jaljith.
On November 26, there were discussions in the group that someone had betrayed them and that the police knew about them. The group was then deleted.
Kerala Crime Branch IG Sreejith IPS tells TNM that the police are now trying to trace other members on the group. “I can't tell you if the group is active now or not. We want the members to be active, only then can we trace them. I feel we have nabbed the admin in a reasonable time, considering how the encryption in Telegram provides security to its users.”
Should victims be helped?
TNM has seen a few of the images and as Jaljith pointed out, there were a number of pictures featuring the same children. Kerala police however say they are not looking at providing intervention.
“We don't know who the kids are; we won’t be looking into that as that will amount to a witch-hunt. In this case, unless the children come forward, we cannot intervene. We haven't gone after these images and we will not be doing so,” says Sreejith.
Vidya Reddy of TULIR - Centre for the Prevention and Healing Child Sexual Abuse, disagrees. “Victim identification is the cornerstone of investigating child abuse or child pornography. It is shocking the police believe it is not their concern. It is now well proven that in a large number of such cases, children sexually abused are relatives of the persons who produce the pictures, and the children personally need help,” Vidya tells TNM.
Why we are not calling them pedophiles
Through the story, TNM has used word child sexual abusers and not paedophiles. “A paedophile is strictly defined as someone who has a sexual interest in pre-pubescent children, and this can be decided only after evaluation by trained professionals. But people here are certainly child sex abusers because they are viewing images of children being sexually abused. A lot of people delude themselves, thinking viewing an image is not an abuse. But every time you click on that image, you are complicit in abusing that child,” Vidya explains.
What is grooming?
According to National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, “Grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking.
Children and young people can be groomed online or face-to-face, by a stranger or by someone they know - for example a family member, friend or professional.
Groomers may be male or female. They could be of any age.