THE two leaders of Scotland's worst paedophile ring were given life sentences yesterday and ordered to serve minimum terms of 16 and 13 years for what a judge described as wholly dreadful crimes.
The families of two children abused by Neil Strachan, 41, and James Rennie, 38, welcomed the sentences. The mother of a boy who featured in a particularly harrowing photograph with Strachan said she hoped he would never be released.
The father of an infant who had been targeted by Rennie, while he was a friend and trusted to babysit, stated: "Thirteen years … that keeps him in prison until my son will be a man and that's important to me."
Previously, Lord Bannatyne had sentenced six other members of the ring to between two and 17 years, terms which could attract remission of up to one half.
The orders for lifelong restriction imposed on Strachan and Rennie mean they will not be freed unless it is deemed safe by the parole board, and Strachan must serve the full period of 16 years and Rennie the full 13 years before they become eligible for release. If allowed out, they will remain on licence and under supervision for the rest of their lives, and liable to be recalled to custody.
At a trial earlier this year, the jury heard that Strachan, of Duff Street, Dalry, Edinburgh, who has a previous conviction for child sex offences, and Rennie, of Marionville Road, Meadowbank, Edinburgh, had conspired with others to commit sexual offences against children.
"Meeting" via the internet, the gang also downloaded and distributed thousands of indecent images.
A major police investigation, Operation Algebra, began in late 2007 after images were discovered on a computer used by Strachan in his job as an engineer with a paint firm. The computer had been sent for repair. The inquiry identified the other members of the ring, and up to 70 contacts throughout the UK and abroad.
Two children were discovered to have suffered "contact" abuse.
One boy, F, was abused from the age of three months by Rennie, who was a friend of his parents. Rennie took photographs and videos of the acts, and passed them on to others. On one occasion, another of the gang listened on the phone to Rennie's indecency towards the boy, and spoke to the youngster as it was happening. Rennie offered the boy to other paedophiles, an offer taken up by Strachan.
Another boy, J, fell prey to Strachan, who had been trusted by his parents to babysit. A photograph of Strachan committing a gross act on J, aged 18 months, became known as the "Hogmanay Image".
Lord Bannatyne told Strachan: "What is shown in that photograph is utterly appalling and would shock to the core any right-minded person who has had to see it. This can be properly described as a wholly dreadful crime."
The judge said Strachan, who is HIV positive, was one of the principal movers in the conspiracy, and his record was a major aggravating factor. He had "base sexual interests" and was said in a report to have been unresponsive to treatment, and represented "an ongoing and persistent risk of future sexual violence".
Mark Stewart, QC, for Rennie, said the accused had suffered sexual abuse in his childhood, and he wanted to make a formal public apology to the parents of F, although he knew no apology could address the harm which had been done.
Lord Bannatyne said Rennie was at the heart of the conspiracy.
"You were, in my judgment, like a spider at the centre of this conspiracy, weaving an electronic web bringing to fruition this appalling crime."
The parents of F rejected Rennie's apology. The mother said: "It means nothing really. I think he's sorry he's been caught. I would expect him to still be abusing my son if he hadn't been caught."
Her husband added: "I'm afraid I see it as a cynical ploy and I've got no time for it."
Rennie: facade of good deeds
JAMES Rennie had been both a confidante to teenagers and a prominent champion of youth rights.
He began working with LGBT Youth Scotland – which provides support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people – in 1997.
Every week, the trained teacher would provide emotional support and advice for about 20 youngsters aged between 13 and 18 at a community centre in Tollcross.
It was within the offices of LGBT Youth Scotland that Rennie accessed the Hotmail account that he used to view and distribute pornographic images of children.
He studied physics at Heriot-Watt University, and it was during these studies that he became friends with the parents of one of the abused.
Strachan: 24-year record
NEIL Strachan had previously abused children. He was jailed for three years in 1997 for repeatedly molesting a boy.
In an echo of the abuse of which he was convicted, the 41-year-old former youth football club official started preying on the boy when he was five, after befriending his parents.
After he was caught, Strachan quit as secretary of the Edinburgh-based Celtic East Boys Club. The abuse had gone on for two years.
The boy's parents trusted Strachan and let their son stay overnight at his home in Edinburgh. After his conviction, the victim's mother said Strachan "should be castrated".
Strachan had been convicted of a similar sex offence in 1985, but had managed to keep his past secret.
Scots police forces unite to follow abusers' 'electronic footprints'
A NEW major initiative in Scotland to identify internet child abusers was announced yesterday, as the leaders of the country's most prolific paedophile ring were given life sentences.
Operation Alba will involve a combined effort by all Scotland's eight police forces and other agencies, and is designed to follow the "electronic footprints" left by those who download and distribute indecent images of children or groom young victims through chatrooms.
The open-ended operation has stemmed from the case of Neil Strachan, 41, and James Rennie, 38, who were jailed for minimum terms of 16 years and 13 years at the High Court in Edinburgh. Previously, other members of their group who conspired to commit sexual offences against children were given lengthy prison terms.
The case revealed a network of contacts of hundreds of people throughout the UK and abroad, and further prosecutions are expected.
Assistant Chief Constable Iain Livingstone, who holds the child protection portfolio for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, said: "We are turning a corner in dealing with this kind of crime in Scotland and we will be proactive in our approach.
"Operation Alba will use intelligence and sophisticated techniques to detect those involved in online child abuse and bring them to justice.
"We are making clear through Operation Alba that there is no hiding place. Every contact via the internet leaves a trail which we will follow. We will investigate, enforce the law and rescue children from harm. It is a priority for the police service in Scotland to protect our children."
A dedicated core of specialist investigators and technical analysts will be used, and there is no time limit or set budget. In the past, there have been operations to target individuals but this is the first of its kind with a general remit. The police say full details of the work cannot be revealed for operational reasons.
"It's not something which will run for six months...it is open-ended. Those who abuse our children think they can disguise their tracks. However, we will use the very technology they exploit to catch them," said Mr Livingstone.