By Katrin Bennhold
November 1, 2014
The New York Times
ROCHDALE, England — Shabir Ahmed, a delivery driver for two takeout places, did not have to go looking for young girls. Runaways and rebellious teenagers would show up at the restaurants, often hungry and cold. He slipped them free drinks and chicken tikka masala. “Call me Daddy,” he would say.
But soon, Mr. Ahmed, a father of four, would demand payback. In a room above one of the restaurants, according to testimony and evidence in later legal proceedings against him, he would play a pornographic DVD and pass around shots of vodka. Then, on a floor mattress with crumpled blue sheets and kitchen smells wafting from below, he raped them, and later forced them into sex with co-workers and friends, too.
The girls were too scared of him to talk. And when they did, no one believed them. Once, a 15-year-old got so drunk and upset that she smashed a glass counter. Mr. Ahmed and his colleagues did not hesitate to call the police. After she was released, she was coerced into sex four or five times a week, sometimes with half a dozen men at a time, in apartments and taxis around Rochdale, a town in northwest England near Manchester.
The police and other agencies were alerted more than 100 times over six years to the possibility that something very wrong was happening before Mr. Ahmed, now 61, was arrested and charged as the leader of a sexual exploitation ring that involved eight men of Pakistani descent and one Afghan. In May 2012, he was given a 19-year prison sentence for raping and abetting rape in a case involving at least 47 girls, all of them white.
Mr. Ahmed showed no remorse. He called the judge a “racist bastard,” the girls “prostitutes” and blamed white Britons for “training” their daughters in drinking and sexual activity at a young age.
The recent revelations that at least 1,400 teenage and preteenage girls had been sexually exploited over 16 years by so-called grooming gangs in another northern English city, Rotherham, stunned the nation because of the sheer scale of the abuse. And it put an uncomfortable spotlight on issues of race, religion and ethnicity in an increasingly multicultural nation: Nearly all of the rape suspects are Pakistani men, and nearly all of the victims are white.
But the problem and the slow law-enforcement response are not limited to Rotherham, where evidence files are said to have gone missing and no charges have been filed since the release two months ago of an independent report documenting the widespread abuse. (Only one case in Rotherham, involving three teenage girls, had been prosecuted.) In nearby Sheffield, a local official has accused the police of ignoring data she passed along over the past decade, including addresses where she said abuse was taking place and names of those suspected of abuse.
The police and prosecutors say they are now pursuing cases more aggressively across the country, including in Manchester, where about 180 suspects are under investigation. Simon Bailey of the Association of Chief Police Officers last month spoke of “many more Rotherhams to come.”
Mr. Ahmed is a rare example in such a case of someone who has been charged, tried and convicted of rape. His case sheds light on how grooming gangs work and how they have contributed to a broader pattern of sexual abuse of children involving British celebrities, politicians, private schoolteachers and clergymen.
Mr. Ahmed’s case and a handful of others prosecuted since 2010, including in Rochdale and in Keighley in the north and in Oxford in the south, followed the same template: Mostly Asian men were found to have groomed mostly white British girls between the ages of 12 and 18, getting them to use alcohol or drugs and then forcing them to have sex, either for personal gratification or for trafficking and prostitution.
In a country already fiercely debating issues of immigration and national identity, the cases have prompted anti-Muslim demonstrations by far-right groups and some soul-searching generally. Why do British-Pakistani men figure so prominently? Were they deliberately targeting white girls and staying away from their own community? Did police and local officials turn a blind eye for fear of being accused of racism, losing votes among immigrant groups or stoking the kinds of tensions that have unleashed periodic rioting in other British towns?
Nazir Afzal, a Pakistani-Briton who is the chief crown prosecutor in charge of sexual crime, said the recent cases were not primarily about race. “It’s not the ethnicity or religion of the abusers that defines them; it’s their attitude toward women,” Mr. Afzal said in a recent interview. “These men will abuse the girls and women who are the most accessible to them, regardless of their religion or the color of their skin.”
Mr. Ahmed, he pointed out, was separately convicted of 30 counts of child rape of a Pakistani girl, a case that resulted in a 22-year prison sentence later in 2012 but that received much less media attention. Mr. Ahmed plans to appeal at the European Court of Justice, his lawyer, Naila Akhter, said.
Over the last two years alone, Mr. Afzal’s office has dealt with sex offenders from 25 countries and victims from 64. Nearly nine of every 10 convicted sexual abusers in Britain are white men, he said, and by far the most common pattern of child sexual abuse takes place not just within the same community but within the same home.
In online grooming, the fastest-growing form of abuse, with victims first contacted online, there appears to be no clear racial pattern, either.
But Mr. Afzal, who was the prosecutor in the Rochdale case after overturning a decision by his predecessor not to take the case to court, said that in the type of child sexual exploitation known as localized or on-street grooming, men of Pakistani heritage feature prominently.
White men are still the largest group at 49 percent of known offenders in this category, according to a 2012 study by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, which identified 2,409 victims over a 14-month period across England even before the Rotherham report was published. But at 33 percent, “Asian men” — most commonly referring to Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and Afghans — were disproportionately represented, given that they represent just over 7 percent of the population.
One reason, officials, scholars and community workers suggest, is practical rather than cultural: Nighttime industries like taxi-driving and takeout restaurants have been at the heart of many grooming networks, offering points of contact with vulnerable girls far away from parental supervision.
Pakistanis work in disproportionate numbers in both. In the Rochdale case, eight of the nine perpetrators drove taxis or worked at two takeout restaurants. (One taxi company in Rochdale said it now provides white drivers on request.)
“The victims are often desperate for warmth, transport, food and sometimes drugs and alcohol,” said Ray McMorrow, a health specialist for the National Working Group, a charitable network based in Derby. “They gravitate toward these men who then take advantage of them.”
“There are anecdotes of the girls being racially stereotyped as white sluts or white trash, but it’s hard to say how much of that is racism and sectarianism and how much is classic sexual offender behavior belittling the victims,” he said.
Others suspect a cultural misogyny rooted in a very patriarchal Muslim society in which men exert high levels of control over women. “This could give rise to a culture in which it is more acceptable to treat women and girls with contempt,” said Sue Berelowitz, Britain’s deputy children’s commissioner.
Mr. Afzal recalls listening to Mr. Shabir in Rochdale during the trial. “He would ask: ‘What am I doing here? I have done nothing wrong,’ ” Mr. Afzal said. “He said he was doing what everyone else was doing.”
With the police looking the other way and more and more men getting involved in the abuse, there was a culture of permissibility, Mr. Afzal said.
A powerful culture of shame and honor surrounding premarital sex, including rape, among some Asian Muslims, may also have skewed the victim statistics. Honor and shame certainly proved an effective tool when Mr. Shabir blackmailed his Asian victim into silence during a decade of regular abuse. “You are damaged goods,” he would tell her, threatening to force her into marriage if she spoke up, Mr. Afzal recalled. Asian victims of sexual abuse are three times less likely to come forward than white victims, he said, citing Home Office data.
“They fear not just their rapists,” said Shaista Gohir, chairwoman of the Muslim Women’s Network U.K. “They fear their own community and their own family: They fear honor crime, forced marriage and being shunned and ostracized for bringing shame to their family.”
Taking the cultural dimension of grooming seriously without overstating it is difficult, said Ms. Berelowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner.
“We shouldn’t ignore patterns that could alert us to victims and perpetrators that might otherwise be hidden and that might be linked to faith and ethnicity,” Ms. Berelowitz said. “But if we think the stereotype of the Asian abuser and the white victim is all that’s going on, it’s very dangerous.”