by LAUREN CODLING
A FORMER chief crown prosecutor has spoken of his experiences working on the Rochdale child sexual abuse case in his new memoir, and revealed the racism he faced in its aftermath.
Nazir Afzal’s The Prosecutor charts his time working in the justice system, as well as detailing his campaign work on so-called honour killing and forced marriage. In his job as the chief crown prosecutor in northwest England for nearly five years, the British Pakistani handled some of the most harrowing and violent crimes in the UK.
One of his most high-profile cases was the prosecution of a gang guilty of child sexual exploitation and abuse in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, in 2012.
According to Afzal, the Rochdale scandal was a “landmark” case relating to victims of sexual abuse. It preceded other prominent incidents, including the allegations into TV personality Jimmy Savile, who was accused of abusing hundreds of victims, and, more recently, the MeToo movement.
“In many respects, it was a precursor to all of that,” Afzal told Eastern Eye. “The view was – not just on grooming, but sexual abuse generally – that people were not taking it very seriously and authorities weren’t investigating as thoroughly as they would have done otherwise.
“I think Rochdale was a landmark case, not just about grooming, but also in the way that we deal with cases relating to young people and abuse, full stop.”
The case saw a group of men – all of south Asian heritage – convicted of sex trafficking and other offences such as rape. The perpetrators targeted vulnerable girls in the local area, plying them with alcohol and drugs, and subjecting them to horrific sexual abuse.
Since the trial, similar gangs have been uncovered across the country – in Rotherham, Telford, Derby, Huddersfield and Newcastle.
The cases made headlines, with much discussion centred around the ethnicity of the men who committed the crimes. After the trial, Afzal has been calling for research into the nature of the case and the perpetrators behind it.
Despite then-home secretary Savid Javid promising in 2018 to investigate if there were cultural factors that drove mainly men of Pakistani heritage to carry out such abuse, no findings have come to light. [There is no evidence to show Asian men are disproportionately represented among those guilty of child sexual exploitation or abuse.]
The government has since argued that the review announced by Javid was an “internal” one. Last summer, Afzal criticised the former home secretary for a “shocking” lack of action on the investigation and he continues to call on the government to publish its research.
Although Afzal called the issue a “complex problem”, he believes some of it can be attributed to culture. “The youngest perpetrator in the Rochdale case was 18, but he was ‘given’ a girl for his 16th birthday, which tells me that these men and perhaps others have a very warped view of women and girls,” Afzal said.
He noted that some perpetrators were in arranged, loveless marriages, and a few may have been forced to marry. “Others were just abusers,” he added. “They wanted power and control over girls.”
The uncovering of the abuse and subsequent media coverage focusing on the ethnicity of the perpetrators did not come without consequences for Afzal, however.
In the aftermath, he was targeted by far-right groups who sought to discredit him.
“The far-right realised that I had damaged their narrative – that everyone from a minority group is the same – so they wanted to paint a picture that these bad guys were reflective of the whole community,” Afzal recalled. “When they discovered the one who prosecuted them was brown, they came for me.”
Extremists created social media pages suggesting that Afzal had not prosecuted the men. Thereafter, he was bombarded with hundreds of threatening messages and police had to install panic alarms in his home. His children were forced to travel by taxi to school every day to ensure their safety. Afzal found his car tyres slashed and there were even far-right demonstrations staged outside his home.
It was a painful time, Afzal revealed. “I only survived it because of the networks I had, and my staff who ensured I was protected and so was my family,” he said. “I had a police officer posted outside my door for two weeks. I had to tell my children about the policeman as it was the only way I could reassure them.”
Even now, Afzal receives hateful, racist messages. Although he said he has become accustomed to the abuse, he admitted it was still difficult for his children.
“My children shouldn’t have to see it,” he said. “They do see some of the abuse online and ask why people say stuff about me. It is as prevalent now as it ever has been.”
Enduring racism is not new for Afzal. He regularly encountered violent acts of racism while growing up in Birmingham, and recalled that he was “abused, attacked or spat at” countless times.
“Racism was overt in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said. “There were skinheads on the street, you felt like a prisoner in your home. I was an easy target for people who didn’t like difference.”
Reflecting on his childhood, Afzal believes a lot of his sympathy for those who are abused stems from having been a victim of injustice and prejudice himself. “People around me were victims, and none of us got any justice,” he said. “All of us thought nobody would be interested in our experiences and so, being a victim of hate for two decades, has led to a substantial amount of passion when dealing with it.”
Although Afzal acknowledged that times have changed, he is adamant that racism and unconscious bias remain a problem in contemporary society.
In 1998, the Macpherson Report, a public inquiry triggered by the murder of black British teenager Stephen Lawrence, was published. It concluded that the Metropolitan Police force was institutionally racist.
Despite two decades passing since the findings, Afzal believes institutional racism still blights British society.
Those who deny it are “blinkered,” he said, and added that the issue was as “real today as it always has been”. “We have been complacent in thinking that it [racism] isn’t there,” he said. “There are still be people in authority who are consciously or unconsciously biased against people of colour.”
In his time in the legal system, Afzal became known for his work on forced marriage and ‘honour-based’ killings in the UK. In 2004, he was approached by charity leaders who said they were dealing with a large number of victims, but no one in politics or the media was addressing the issue.
Afzal was told stories of numerous survivors, many of which were extremely harrowing. “I heard about women whose sisters had set fire to themselves as it was the only way they could escape these relationships,” he recalled.
However, there was no official data on the statistics, so it was hard to gauge the true extent of the problem. In order to trigger a conversation, Afzal began to reach out to authorities. He organised a conference – the first of its kind in the world – on forced marriage, and started speaking to the Home Office about the issue. The police began collecting data, so that authorities were able to understand the scale of the crimes.
“I spent three or four years running around the country talking to all kinds of organisations and government, and we got to the stage where we were now,” he said.
However, the continuation of such harmful acts taking place is partly why Afzal decided to leave the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in 2015. Victims had already been harmed by the time the case got to court, and he wanted to prevent it happening in the first place, he explained.
“There isn’t enough going on in that area,” he said. “There isn’t enough education, challenge and there aren’t enough male role models who are prepared to speak up and say ‘enough is enough’. (The UK) is probably still the world leaders in tackling this subject. That makes me immensely proud, but it also makes me immensely sad that the world still needs to catch up and we still have people being harmed.”
The Prosecutor by Nazir Afzal is available to buy now