How a mild-mannered rugby referee's routine life became a public scandal. By Andrew Walpole
Colin Laskey's mantelpiece is like many others in the Rhondda Valley. It is crammed with small, silver shields, miniature cups mounted on plinths and statuettes of sportsmen in athletic poses. Each marks Colin's own contribution to the history of Welsh Rugby Union, first as a modestly talented player, and latterly as a well-respected referee.

A short stroll away from Colin's neatly furnished terraced house lies the home of Pontypridd RFC, one of Wales's leading clubs, currently boasting two Welsh internationals. Colin used to referee the odd match on Pontypridd's hallowed turf. But for the most part he was a sterling servant in the junior leagues which are the lifeblood of the Welsh game. Locally, he was regarded as a competent match official and a "good mixer" who liked a post-match drink with the lads.

But today the South Wales rugby fraternity has turned its back on Colin Laskey. His phone hardly ever rings with requests from teams to officiate at matches. What on earth has this most polite and mild-mannered of men done to upset the followers of a sport which is still regarded in the Valleys as something of a religion?

The problem is Colin's other hobby - sadomasochism. Five years ago, with a group of other gay men, he was tried at the Old Bailey in a now infamous case brought by the Obscene Publications Squad. Dubbed Operation Spanner, it had come to light after the police stumbled across a videotape of a group of men having sex with each other and with animals, of men's genitals and buttocks being cut with scalpels, branded with hot wires, nailed to boards, punctured with pins, stung with nettles and hit with rulers and spiked gloves. Colin got four-and-a-half years (later cut to two on appeal) for conspiracy to assault, running a disorderly house, grievous bodily harm, actual bodily harm and publication of indecent material. Only now, after a long legal battle, has he, along with co-defendants Roland Jaggard, a former aerospace engineer, and Tony Brown, a retired local government official, won the right to challenge their convictions in the European Court of Human Rights, probably later this year.

"I know some people would find the idea of being tied down and having that kind of thing done to you very frightening," he says with disarming frankness. "But it's really no worse than having your nose or ears pierced."

Naturally, nobody in Pontypridd had suspected Colin was into this type of thing. It is perhaps the kind of town most gays would leave for London. This is a place where the influence of non-conformist religion lingers on in the shape of numerous Baptist and Methodist chapels, where the local heroes are symbols of hairy-chested heterosexuality like the pop singer Tom Jones, and where the closest men come to discovering the pleasure- pain principle is via a crunching rugby tackle.

"I don't think anyone where I worked, or in the rugby clubs round here, even knew I was gay - let alone into a weird and wonderful activity like sadomasochism," says Colin, with a wry smile.

You can see why. In his dark trousers, white shirt, grey striped tie, black shoes and white socks, Colin looks every inch the computer operator he was before his imprisonment. Small, with a whippet-like frame, grey wispy hair and bushy sideburns, it is hard to imagine him as a stereotypical leather-clad, whip-wielding "master" disciplining his "slave".

But then Colin doesn't see S&M as particularly deviant. "It's the same as going pot- holing really," he continues, chuckling at the unlikely comparison with another of his interests. "Unless you have done it, you can't understand what the thrill of it is. It's something you have to experience for yourself."

Now 52, Colin first got involved in the S&M scene in the late 1970s, via contact magazines, when he was working as a handicrafts teacher. Over the next decade he became an active member of a small circle of mainly middle-class, middle-aged, closeted gay men practising what they thought was a perfectly harmless, if rather unusual, form of sexual gratification. A lay preacher and an international lawyer were among the participants.

"We were all law-abiding citizens in bloody good jobs who simply never thought that we were breaking the law," recalls Colin. "We would go and stay with each other for the weekend. And then after the activity have a cup of tea or coffee together. Where was the hostile intent in that?"

Colin's bitterness about the case now isn't borne solely out of the devastating impact it had on his career and relations with family and friends, but from a deep sense of injustice. The legal system, in his view, took a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

"The courts have got completely the wrong idea about S&M," he says. "They think everyone involved in consensual, private S&M activities will end up a rapist or a serial killer, but that's nonsense. Nobody ever needed hospital treatment as a result of our activities. With S&M, you get pleasure from satisfying each other."

The ambiguities of S&M role-playing were beyond the police's comprehension, says Colin. "They would look at the video and say, `There you are, he's saying "stop, stop."' What they didn't understand is that what the person actually means is `Carry on'. We had code words which were always agreed beforehand as a signal to be used if someone wanted to stop."

In human rights circles, there is growing support for Colin's argument. Some lawyers believe it could eventually lead to whipping, scratching or even love-biting during sex being deemed unlawful. Even the Government's adviser on legislation, the Law Commission, has recommended changing the law in the light of the case.

While his legal team begin preparing the full challenge to the convictions, Colin is gradually rebuilding the shattered fragments of his life. "For a while even if I was just going down the road to the post office, I would take the car," he says, "because I was worried about people pointing the finger at me."

His fear is understandable: a solitary existence in a small town where your private life has been exposed is a bleak prospect. Yet today the locals seem more concerned about the recent death of Colin's mother than the rights and wrongs of his conviction.

"We had a bit of a laugh about the case when it was in the paper," says a regular at the Merlin pub near Colin's home. "But I think most people round here reckon it's up to him what he does in his own bedroom. He didn't hurt anyone, did he?"

In rugby circles, however, prejudice runs deeper. The case caused much embarrassment for Colin's brother, a prominent member of a local club. And although two teams provided him with court references, Colin is resigned to the fact that he will soon have to hang up his referee's whistle for good.

"Rugby is the one thing I do miss," says Colin ruefully. "Down here, there's a great social side to the game and I used to enjoy being invited to the post-match drinks and the social functions."

Will he ever be invited back as a rugby referee again? "Quite frankly, no," says Mel Davies, referee appointments secretary for the Rhondda and East Glamorgan league. He is sympathetic, but fears an adverse reaction from fans and players if Colin returned to the game. "It was the sadomasochism that shocked everyone, you see. You've got to realise that at that time down in the Valleys, even being gay was unheard of. Even now, we're still a bit behind."

Colin admits he could have easily sought refuge in anonymity again. But, against all the odds, he seems to have drawn strength from being "outed" by the case. "I did consider moving away from Pontypridd after I came out of prison," he says. "But then I thought why run away? That would be an admission of guilt."

And does he continue to enjoy S&M? "It's still an important part of my sex life," he says, "although I'm being more careful now. All of us who were involved in the trial don't see why we should stop. We don't think we are doing anything wrong."