South Korean police broke policy by naming 24-year-old suspect Cho Ju-bin, a man accused of leading a group that blackmailed girls into sharing sexual videos, after five million people signed petitions urging them to do so.
At least 74 women, including 16 underage girls, were “virtually enslaved” for months, according to South Korea’s National Police Agency.
They were blackmailed and coerced by the group into sending videos of themselves performing increasingly degrading and sometimes violent sexual acts.
These were then posted to chatrooms on the encrypted Telegram messaging app, where some 10,000 people used cryptocurrencies to pay the group up to US$1,200 (£1,000) for access.
A police committee took the unusual step of naming Cho after a petition on the presidential website, calling for the main suspect to be named, was signed 2.6m times while another petition on the same site, calling for all chatrooms users to be named, was signed almost 2m times.
As public outrage reached critical mass over a culture which critics allege is lenient about sexual abuse and often fails victims, South Korean president Moon Jae-in was forced to intervene.
President Moon Jae-in regarded the chatrooms as a “cruel act that destroyed lives”, according to a spokesman.
“The fact that more than three million people signed the petition…is a serious plea to the government from the people, especially women, requesting a stop to such malicious digital sex crimes,” the spokesman added.
President Moon called for a thorough investigation and stern punishment for all those involved in chatrooms.
“I apologise to those who were hurt by me,” Cho said as he was led away from a Seoul police station on Wednesday.”Thank you for putting a brake on the life of a devil that could not be stopped.”
He did not respond when reporters asked if he admitted the charges.
He is accused of abuse, threats and coercion, and of violating the child protection act, the privacy act and the sexual abuse act.
An alleged victim, who is still at school, described how she was told to send pictures of herself and at least 40 sexually abusive videos while looking for work online, according to the BBC.
“He already had my face, my voice, my personal information,” the victim said. ”I was afraid that he would threaten me with that information if I said I would quit.”
Mr. Cho allegedly operated one of the biggest chatrooms with around 10,000 users, and police are investigating whether he operated others.
The National Police Agency told reporters that 124 suspects had been arrested – with 18 chat room operators in custody – since September. Cho is one of the 18.
A user called God God, who is suspected of first creating the chat room, remains at large.
“Through strict investigation, the police will entirely transform the social apathy to digital sex crime and strongly root out such crime from our society,” said Min Gap-ryong, commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency. (Source: BBC)