Mistakes by police, social services and the Crown Prosecution Service led to potentially dozens of young girls being raped, beaten and trafficked by a child exploitation ring, it emerged yesterday.
A failure in 2008 to believe a 15-year-old girl's evidence that she had been systematically groomed at the hands of a network of taxi drivers and takeaway workers in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, led to at least two more years of abuse being meted out to the gang's victims, many of whom have still not come forward.
Nine men were described as "pure evil" by detectives as they were convicted at Liverpool Crown Court for the on-street grooming of vulnerable young people.
The 11-week trial heard how the girls, aged between 13 and 15, were befriended with the offer of alcohol and drugs, kebabs, or mobile-phone credits by the older men at late-night outlets before being sexually exploited by up to 50 men across the North of England. One 15-year-old victim described how she was forced to have sex with up to 20 men in one day. Another told how she was raped by two men as she was being sick from alcohol. Police interviewed 47 potential victims but proceedings were only bought in connection with five of them.
The trial led to violent disturbances in Heywood near Rochdale where the grooming took place, with gangs of white youths attacking local Asian-owned businesses where some of the men previously worked.
Far-right groups held demonstrations outside the court, prompting two Asian barristers to pull out of the trial, fearing retribution. Other protests were held in neighbouring towns to exploit tensions arising from the case – the first in which men have been convicted of trafficking children for sex within the UK.
It can also be revealed that Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, almost caused the collapse of the trial by prematurely tweeting that seven verdicts had been reached. The counsel for the defence queried how he had obtained such information, suggesting it proved there had been communication from inside the jury room and that a re-trial should be ordered.
After an investigation, Mr Justice Clifton concluded that, despite the fact Mr Griffin's tweet was "100 per cent accurate", no juror had disclosed their secret deliberations to the outside world.
In the end, the panel of nine women and three men took five days to find 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 – guilty of exploiting the five young victims on 25 of the 35 charges they faced.
Two defendants, Liaquat Shah, 41, and Qamar Shahzad, 30, both of Rochdale, were cleared of all charges.
Det Ch Supt Mary Doyle, head of public protection at Greater Manchester Police, said the men subjected their victims to years of degradation. "It was pure evil. They were exploiting the vulnerable in our society for their own gratification," she said.
The men, who were predominantly of Pakistani descent, passed the girls around the network, paying their victims to recruit other young people for them to abuse. A teenage girl referred to by the gang as the "Honey Monster", who helped procure victims, was not charged in the public interest.
Failures in an initial investigation in August 2008 meant that the gang was allowed to continue its activities until 2010, when a fresh inquiry was launched following more allegations of sex abuse against young girls in the Heywood area.
Steve Heywood, Assistant Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, apologised to the first victim. "She was vulnerable; she needed help. We didn't give her the help that she needed and I apologise for that. We could have done better," he said.
Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North-west, who reversed the CPS's decision not to proceed with the case when he was appointed, said lawyers had been "wrong". He added that he would apologise personally to the victim.
The case has resulted in a comprehensive review of child exploitation in Greater Manchester, with 9,000 children in Rochdale having now received lessons on the subject. Agencies are still trying to establish the full extent of the offending and to find better ways of combating it.
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, accused Pakistani community elders of "burying their heads in the sand" on the issue of on-street grooming.
He said: "There is a significant problem for the British Pakistani community; there is an over-representation amongst recent convictions in the crime of on-street grooming. There should be no silence in addressing the issue of race as this is central to the actions of these criminals. They think that white teenage girls are worthless and can be abused without a second thought; it is this sort of behaviour that is bringing shame on our community."
A spokeswoman for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre said such offences are committed by "all cultures and ethnicities", but conceded that Asian males had been involved in a number of cases of organised grooming.
Greater Manchester Police said only 5 per cent of those on its convicted sex offenders register were Asian males. "It is not a racial issue. This is about adults preying on vulnerable young children. It just happens that in this particular area and time the demographics were that these were Asian men," said Mr Heywood. The men are due to be sentenced today.