Rochdale, England - She was lonely in the way only an adolescent girl can be: no friends, no boyfriend, not much of a relationship with her parents. So she felt special when a man decades older paid attention to her. Then he took her to a dingy room above a kebab shop and said she had to give something back in return.
His demands grew: not just sex with him, but with his friends. It went on for years, until police charged nine men with running a sex ring with underage girls.
The story of Girl A, as she became known in court, is tragic by any measure, but it has also become explosive, because there is no getting around it.
The girls are white, and the men who used them as sex toys are Asian Muslims, mostly Pakistanis raised in Britain. And it’s not just Rochdale – roughly a dozen other cases of Asian Muslim men accused of grooming white girls for sex are slowly moving to trial across England, involving up to several hundred girls in all.
In today’s Britain, the case has stripped away the skin to expose the racial sores festering beneath. It is also feeding an already raw anger against the country’s Asian Muslim minority.
“You can’t get away from the race element,” says prosecutor Nazir Afzal, a British Muslim with family roots in Pakistan who ended several years of official indifference to the girls’ plight and finally brought the perpetrators to trial. “It’s the elephant in the room.”
From a distance, Rochdale looks like a picture-perfect English city, with the 800-year-old Parish Church of St Chad perched high above the streets, and the Victorian Gothic Town Hall just below, its clock tower resembling the one that houses London’s Big Ben.
Up close, the flaws become clear. A fair number of shops are boarded up, or have been turned into pawn shops.
The Pakistani community started to grow half a century ago, when the town’s cottons mills were flourishing. The newcomers were drawn by the promise of jobs and a chance to educate their children in English schools.
Nearly one million Pakistanis live in England – far more than in any other European country – with about 25 000 settled in the greater Manchester area that includes Rochdale.
They face hard times now. The closed shops are signs of a recession that has hit northern England harder than the more affluent south.
The mills have long since closed, the local newspaper trumpets gloom and doom.
It was in this environment that Girl A lost control one night in 2008.
After drinking heavily, the 15-year-old went to the kebab shop where she had first met her “boyfriend”. She started screaming and busting the place up. When police were called, she told them she had been raped – repeatedly – and offered up her semen-stained underwear as proof.
Police concluded the girl was telling the truth, but lawyers recommended against pressing criminal charges, reasoning that the jury might not believe a troubled, sexually active young girl. The case was quietly dropped after an 11-month inquiry.
The abuse intensified. The ring of predators grew; the circle of victims widened. Eventually there would be at least 47 victims or witnesses.
The girl was driven around at night, forced to have sex with more and more men, sometimes up to five a day, in cars or restaurant backrooms or grubby flats. The men threatened her if she complained.
The Rochdale men do not fit the classic profile for sex offenders in Britain – the majority of paedophilia crimes are committed by white men who target boys and girls via the internet.
However, there is a consensus among prosecutors, police, social workers and leading national politicians that “street grooming”, which happened in Rochdale, is largely dominated by Asian men.
Mohammed Shafiq, a British Pakistani who directs the Ramadhan Foundation in Rochdale, has angered some in his own community by suggesting that police at first did not pursue the case aggressively for fear of appearing racist because of an obsession “with the doctrine of political correctness”.
Shafiq says a “tiny minority” of Pakistani men feel white girls are worthless and immoral – and can be abused with impunity.
The men in the Rochdale sex ring were remarkable only in their ordinariness.
Many were taxi drivers, accustomed to working all-night shifts.
Their cab stands and the kebab shops were often the only businesses that remained open after the bars closed. Most of the men were first or second generation Pakistanis raised mainly in Britain. Only one had faced previous sex charges: ringleader Shabir Ahmed, at 59 the oldest in the group, was accused of repeatedly raping a young girl in a separate case. He was convicted of 30 counts of rape in that case last week.
Some of the men had families and small businesses.
They were finally brought to justice after health workers reported a large increase in the number of girls in the Rochdale area claiming to have suffered sexual abuse.
The next year, Afzal, the new regional chief of the Crown Prosecution Service, decided to press the case in court.
Eleven men were charged.
The jury found nine men guilty and set two free. Judge Gerald Clifton articulated what many felt but were reluctant to say out loud when he accused the men of treating white girls as worthless because “they were not of your community or religion”. Then he sentenced them to a total of 77 years in prison.
The May verdict further polarised Rochdale. Pakistanis were horrified at the stigma on their community.
The girl who first told police about the abuse, now 19, has moved out of the area. In a brief interview, she refused to call the crimes against her racial in nature, but said she was shocked Muslims would commit such acts.
She said that in 2008, when the grooming began, there was no awareness of this type of crime involving Asian men and white girls.
“Now it’s going on everywhere,” she said. “You think of Muslim men as religious and family-minded and just nice people. You don’t think… I don’t know… You just don’t think they’d do things like that.” –