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Sex grooming cases spark racial tensions

Sunday - 7/1/2012, 12:17am  ET

By GREGORY KATZ
Associated Press

ROCHDALE, England (AP) - 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, bought her trinkets, gave her free booze.

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 young white girls for sex are slowly moving to trial across northern England, involving up to several hundred girls in all.

In today's Britain, which prides itself on being a tolerant and integrated society, 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, in a movement led by far right groups at a time when the economy is stalled.

"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. Like missing teeth in an otherwise sparkling smile, a fair number of downtown shops are boarded up, or have been turned into pawn shops or dueling "pound shops" where almost all items cost 1 pound ($1.60) or less.

The Pakistani community started to grow half a century ago, when the town's cottons mills were flourishing. The newcomers, most of them from poor rural villages, were drawn by the promise of steady jobs and a chance to educate their children in English schools.

A number of mosques became part of the skyline, particularly the showcase Golden Mosque, winner of several design awards. Today, Muslim men wearing beards and decorated caps and women in black robes and veils are a constant presence on the downtown streets.

Nearly 1 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. The government's equality commission reports that more than half of the Pakistanis in Britain live in poverty, far more than the general population, with just under 75 percent having no formal savings.

They face hard times now. The closed shops are signs of a double-dip recession that has hit northern England harder than the more affluent south, which includes London, with its financial district and well-to-do suburbs.

The mills have long since closed; the local newspaper trumpets gloom and doom: A tripling in the number of homeless, a sharp rise in youth unemployment, more people seeking housing benefits.

Even the local McDonald's, long a fixture in the town center, has moved out.

It was in this environment that Girl A lost control one summer night in 2008.

After drinking heavily, the 15-year-old went to the kebab shop in nearby Heywood 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.

Greater Manchester Police detectives concluded the girl, who was below the age of consent, was telling the truth, but Crown Prosecution Service lawyers recommended against pressing criminal charges, reasoning that the jury might not believe a troubled, hard-drinking, 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 apartments. The men threatened her if she complained. There seemed to be no escape.

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