Wonderland paedophiles are sentenced

But not one member of the Internet child pornography ring received the maximum possible sentence of three years

Seven Britons were sentenced Tuesday for their participation in the world's largest Internet child pornography ring -- dubbed the "Wonderland Club" -- amid criticism of the court's leniency.

All were jailed for between 18 and 30 months -- none received the maximum sentence of three years.

Appearing before Kingston Crown Court, judge Kenneth Macrae spoke of the "perversity" of trading child pornography on the Internet. "Children represent the future and should be cared for and protected. You have betrayed that principle. The use and abuse of children for your own gratification has horrified me. You have used your computer skills to do this. Directly or indirectly, you have exploited the most vulnerable. The photographic records are proof of your perversity."

David Hines, who was described by the judge as having "the classic distorted thinking and action of a paedophile", was sentenced to 30 months imprisonment. Ian Baldock also received 30 months. Gavin Seagers, a Sea Cadets youth leader from Dartford, Kent, was jailed for two years. Ahmet Ali and Andrew Barlow each received two years.

Antoni Skinner was told that he "merited two years" by Macrae but was sentenced to 18 months.

The final defendant, Frederick Stephens, had only been involved in Wonderland for six months. Sentencing him to twelve months, judge Macrae told him that "you're a bit of an oddity".

"The reality of the Wonderland Club is that it was a vast lending library for like-minded people," said Skinnner's defence lawyer. Three-quarters of a million indecent images of children were discovered on the defendants' home computers, depicting 1,263 children engaged in sexual acts with other children or adults.

Judge Macrae told the men that despite "pandering to the basest interests of man" they would have to be given credit for pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute indecent images of children.

However, the controversial Wonderland trial had been viewed by many as a test case for dealing with paedophile activity on the Internet. Experts have been calling for the maximum three year sentence to be given to all defendants. Robin Bynoe, partner with London law firm Charles Russell, says the sentencing looks suspiciously like plea bargaining came into play -- this is a scenario he believes is inappropriate in such a case.

"It certainly looks like that [a plea bargaining scenario] and whether it is a lighter sentence or not, they [the paedophiles] are effectively getting cash back for not wasting the court's time [by pleading guilty]," says Bynoe.

But Bynoe believes a full-strength trial of all the issues should have been heard in a trial of this nature. "I think where there is a case like this where material of this nature is being disseminated it sends out the wrong message if nobody gets the maximum sentence. The judicial system owes it to the nation when something is being dealt with for the first time, as is the case here, that all the issues are considered in a full-strength trial."

Sex crimes on the Internet need to be scrutinised more diligently by the judicial system, according to Bynoe, who believes flaws in current legislation to deal with Internet paedophiles will only be highlighted by a "trial of all the issues".

None of the defendants sought to gain commercially from their involvement in the club. Mitigation spoke of the lonely existence that typified the defendants' lives, where the anonymity of the Internet provided an easier platform for making friends.

"The Internet sucks you in and becomes an obsession -- it becomes your life. It is a dichotomy of repulsion and attraction, fantasy and reality," argued Skinner's defence.

Hines, one of the Wonderland club members sentenced today, who was a senior channel operator for the ring, believes the Internet may have protected victims from a greater crime. In an exclusive conversation with ZDNet News he admitted: "I might be here for worse things. If it wasn't for the Internet, I might have gone on to rape a child. The Internet is anonymous but I don't want to give anyone any ideas by saying any more."

ZDNet will publish a Special ZDNet Investigates into paedophile use of the Internet later this month

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