Facebook used to kidnap Indonesian girls

MARGIE MASON
Last updated 15:30 27/12/2012

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When a 14-year-old girl received a Facebook friend request from an older man she didn't know, she accepted it out of curiosity.

It's a click she will forever regret, leading to a brutal story that has repeated itself as sexual predators find new ways to exploit Indonesia's growing obsession with social media.

The high school student was quickly smitten by the man's smooth online flattery. They exchanged phone numbers, and his attention increased with rapid-fire texts. He convinced her to meet in a mall, and she found him just as charming in person.

They agreed to meet again. After telling her mum she was going to visit a sick girlfriend on her way to church choir practice, she climbed into the man's minivan near her home in Depok, on the outskirts of Jakarta.

The man, a 24-year-old who called himself Yogi, drove her an hour to the town of Bogor, West Java, she told The Associated Press in an interview.

There, he locked her in a small room inside a house with at least five other girls aged 14 to 17. She was drugged and raped repeatedly - losing her virginity in the first violent session.

After one week of torture, her captor told her she was being sold and shipped to the faraway island of Batam, known for its seedy brothels and child sex tourism that caters to men coming by boat from nearby Singapore.

She sobbed hysterically and begged to go home. She was beaten and told to shut up or die.

So far in 2012, 27 of the 129 children reported missing to Indonesia's National Commission for Child Protection are believed to have been abducted after meeting their captors on Facebook, said the group's chairman, Arist Merdeka Sirait. One of those befriended on the social media site has been found dead.

In one month since the Depok girl was found near a bus terminal on September 30, there have been at least seven reports of young girls in Indonesia being abducted by people they met on Facebook. Although no solid data exists, police and aid groups that work on trafficking issues say it seems to be a particularly big problem in the Southeast Asian archipelago.

"Maybe Indonesia is kind of a unique country so far. Once the reports start coming in, you will know that maybe it's not one of the countries, maybe it's one of a hundred countries," said Anjan Bose, a programme officer who works on child online protection issues at ECPAT International, a non-profit global network that helps children in 70 countries.

"The internet is such a global medium. It doesn't differentiate between poor and rich. It doesn't differentiate between the economy of the country or the culture."

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Websites that track social media say Indonesia has nearly 50 million people signed up for Facebook, making it one of the world's top users after the US. The capital, Jakarta, was recently named the most active Twitter city by Paris-based social media monitoring company Semiocast. In addition, networking groups such as BlackBerry and Yahoo Messenger are wildly popular on mobile phones.

Many young Indonesians, and their parents, are unaware of the dangers of allowing strangers to see their personal information online. Teenagers frequently post photos and personal details such as their home address, phone number, school and hangouts without using any privacy settings - allowing anyone trolling the net to find them and learn everything about them.

"We are racing against time, and the technology frenzy over Facebook is a trend among teenagers here," Sirait said.

"Police should move faster, or many more girls will become victims."

The 27 Facebook-related abductions reported to the commission this year in Indonesia have already exceed 18 similar cases it received in all of 2011. Overall, the National Task Force Against Human Trafficking said 435 children were trafficked last year, mostly for sexual exploitation.

Many who fight child sex crimes in Indonesia believe the real numbers are much higher. Missing children are often not reported to authorities. Stigma and shame surround sexual abuse in the world's largest Muslim-majority country, and there's a widespread belief that police will do nothing to help.

Facebook says its investigators regularly review content on the site and work with authorities, including Interpol, to combat illegal activity. It also has employees around the world tasked with cracking down on people who attempt to use the site for human trafficking .

"We take human trafficking very seriously and, while this behaviour is not common on Facebook, a number of measures are in place to counter this activity," spokesman Andrew Noyes said in an email.

He declined to give any details on Facebook's involvement in trafficking cases reported in Indonesia or elsewhere .

The man who abducted the Depok girl has not been found, and it's unclear what happened to the five other girls held at the house where she was raped.

"I saw they were offered by my kidnapper to many guys," she said.

"I don't know what happened. I don't want to remember it."

- AP

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