Swedish courts that found a man guilty of sex crimes against young girls in Canada and around the world based solely on the nature of his online interactions with them have set a bold new precedent by upgrading more than a dozen of his convictions to rape, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Annika Wennerstrom said Bjorn Samstrom had previously been convicted of 59 sex charges for offences committed against children in three countries, including a teen Ontario and one in Alberta.
Those verdicts included five convictions of aggravated rape of a child or rape, marking one of the first known times someone had been found guilty of the offence without being physically in the room with the victim.
After appeals from both the defence and prosecution, however, Wennerstrom said the courts not only upheld Samstrom’s original rape convictions but added several new ones by upgrading previous charges
The court’s decision sends a clear signal that sexual acts performed under threats of violence issued online can be every bit as serious and traumatic as physical attacks, Wennerstrom said.
“We can see very, very clearly what it takes for a physical act that a girl performs on her own body to be regarded as that violating,” she said in a telephone interview.
“We can use this in future cases, and that is exactly what we hoped for.”
Wennerstrom said 15 convictions of aggravated sexual assault or sexual coercion have now been converted to rape of a child or rape, depending on whether the victim was younger or older than 15.
Despite the fact that he has now been convicted of 20 rape charges, the 10-year prison sentence Samstrom was handed in November remains unchanged.
The 41-year-old’s defence lawyer did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The case against Samstrom involved allegations of sexual coercion against 27 victims in Canada, the United States and Scotland.
Court heard that Samstrom would threaten to post photos of the victims on pornography sites or to kill their relatives unless they performed sex acts as he watched from Sweden.
Wennerstrom said Samstrom would approach his victims by searching now-defunct websites that offered people chances to connect on the basis of shared interests, such as music or leisure activities. She said Samstrom would search those sites to find girls in specific age brackets, then send them private messages threatening violence if they did not respond.
The sexual demands would begin as soon as the frightened children replied, Wennerstrom said, adding Samstrom made no attempt to charm or groom his victims.
Samstrom admitted coercing the teens – all under age 15 at the time – but denied his actions constituted rape.
The original convictions against Samstrom were the first of their kind in Sweden, which defines rape as an act that does not necessarily have to include intercourse so long as it is deemed equally violating.
Wennerstrom said Samstrom had a long history of similar offences dating back to his teens.
She said the latest case marked the sixth time he came before the court, adding his preferred modes of communication have evolved over the years from the telephone to the internet.
Samstrom lived alone near Uppsala, some 70 kilometres north of Stockholm, at the time of his most recent arrest. The international case came to light when Samstrom was being investigated for another coercion case involving Swedish victims, Wennerstrom said.
During that investigation, she said police found videos at his home of girls speaking English.
She credited international authorities for their co-operation in the ensuing investigation, reserving special praise for Canadian interviewers with the RCMP.
She said she was initially surprised to see officers conducting the sensitive conversations in formal suits and with their police weapons in sight, but called them “wizards” for extracting valuable information from the victims while simultaneously offering comfort and reassurance.
“They gave (the kids) space, they gave them time, and they gave them a lot of positive feedback,” she said.
“They lifted the guilt from the child, and when the child left the room … they had straightened their backs and they said, ‘this is good, now I can move forward.”‘
Wennerstrom said there is still a possibility that Samstrom’s case could go before the Swedish Supreme Court. Even if it does not, however, she said she hopes it will spur parents to have candid conversations with their children about internet safety.
“I hope that somehow it will be inspiring in talking to kids about this and about other aspects of interacting online.”