LONDON (AP) — Nine men of Pakistani and Afghan descent were convicted Tuesday of luring girls as young as 13 into sexual encounters using alcohol and drugs, in a case that has heightened racial tensions in Britain and stirred protests among the far right.
The five victims who shared their stories with jurors during the trial were all white. They spoke of being raped, assaulted and traded for sex, sometimes being passed from man to man, and sometimes being too drunk to stop the abuse. One said that by the end of the ordeal, she "had no emotion."
The trial has been controversial in more than one respect. One of the victims first contacted police in August 2008, supplying underwear with DNA evidence implicating one of the suspects, but a Crown Prosecution Service lawyer failed to press charges after concerns that the jury might have questioned the girl's credibility.
An Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating why that decision was made. And police have interviewed around 40 girls as part of their investigation, raising the possibility that there are other victims who did not come forward to testify.
"We'd get free alcohol, cigarettes, food and free taxis and things," said the girl who went to the police in 2008. "At first I thought it (was) great because nothing had happened, like nothing sexual. Towards the end it was like, it could be up to five different men in a day, sometimes every day, at least four or five times a week."
The girl, who was lured in to the sex ring at age 15 and is now 20, escaped the gang after she became pregnant. The ring was based in the town of Rochdale, about 170 miles from London.
The men, who were convicted Tuesday of charges including rape, assault, sex trafficking and conspiracy, range in age from 22 to 59. One worked as a religious studies teacher at a mosque but it is not known if the others were religious.
The men used various defenses, including claiming that the girls were prostitutes.
Sentencing for the men — Kabeer Hassan, Abdul Aziz, Abdul Rauf, Mohammed Sajid, Adil Khan, Abdul Qayyum, Mohammed Amin, Hamid Safi and a 59-year-old man who cannot be named for legal reasons — begins Wednesday.
"The details of the offenses that we have heard in this trial in the last few weeks have shocked and appalled us all," said Nazi Afzal, chief crown prosecutor for the North West Area.
Greater Manchester Police Assistant Chief Constable Steve Heywood denied that the case was about race.
"It is not a racial issue," he said. "This is about adults preying on vulnerable young children."
But race was repeatedly brought to the fore as the case progressed.
Far right groups such as the English Defence League and the British National Party led protests shortly after the trial began Feb. 6. The father of one victim told the court he joined the BNP after learning of what had happened to his daughter.
The trial also was delayed after two nonwhite lawyers representing some of the men were attacked by far-right protesters and quit the case.
Muslim leaders condemned the crime and praised the bravery of the victims for coming forward.
"These criminals have brought shame on themselves, their families and our community," said Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation, one of Britain's largest Muslim organizations.
British law prohibits publishing the names of sex-crime victims. The Associated Press also generally does not name victims of sexual assault.
During the trial, one girl described how she was forced to sleep with 20 men in a night. Another was raped by two men while so drunk that she was vomiting during the ordeal. The sex ring used another girl, dubbed the "honeymonster," to lure other girls into the ring.
"They ripped away all my dignity and all my last bit of self-esteem," one victim said. "By the end of it, I had no emotion."
Both the Crown Prosecution Service and police apologized for not taking the first victim's case to trial earlier.
It was Afzal who overturned the initial decision and decided to file charges against the men that girl had accused.
"The witness was entirely credible," he said. "To put it bluntly, the original decision was wrong."
Tuesday's convictions bore similarities to a large investigation into a sex ring in the East Midlands that wrapped up in November 2010.
Several men of South Asian descent were convicted of rape and other sexual offenses for preying on vulnerable girls, aged 13 to 20 years old, by plying them with alcohol and forcing them to have sex.
Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd