LONDON – Nine men in northwest England were sentenced to jail terms Wednesday for luring girls as young as 13 into sexual encounters using alcohol and drugs -- a case that has stirred racial tensions and sparked claims that authorities are failing to protect vulnerable children in state care.
Judge Gerald Clifton said the men, aged between 22 and 59 and all of Pakistani or Afghan origin, had treated their victims as "worthless," and sentenced them for crimes including trafficking and rape. The 59-year-old ringleader of the group received 19 years in jail, while his co-accused received between four and 12 years.
Because all the defendants were South Asian and all the victims white, the case has been seized upon by far-right groups, who protested outside the trial in Liverpool.
More measured voices have pointed out that the majority of sex crimes in Britain are committed by white men. But some say there is a specific problem in northern English communities, where a toxic combination of alienated men and vulnerable, unsupervised girls has allowed exploitation to flourish.
"All of you treated (the victims) as though they were worthless and beyond any respect," the judge told the nine men. "One of the factors leading to that was the fact that they were not part of your community or religion."
Twenty-six men were arrested in the investigation, which identified 47 potential victims. Eleven men were charged and nine convicted of charges including rape, assault, sex trafficking and conspiracy.
Martin Narey, former chief executive of the children's charity Barnardo's, said men of Pakistani descent were "overwhelmingly represented in prosecutions" for sexual exploitation offenses in some northern English towns such as Rochdale, 170 miles from London.
"That is not to condemn a whole community. Most Asians would absolutely abhor what we have seen in the last few days in the Rochdale trial, and I don't think this is about white girls," he told the BBC. "It's sadly because vulnerable girls on the street at night are generally white rather than more strictly parented Asian girls, but there is a real problem here."
The men abused the girls in taxis, kebab shops and apartments. The five victims who shared their stories with jurors described being raped, assaulted and traded for sex, sometimes being passed from man to man, and sometimes being too drunk to stop the abuse.
The men used various defenses, including claiming the girls were prostitutes. Several said they did not know the age of consent in Britain, which is 16.
British police and the Crown Prosecution Service have apologized for delays in investigating the case. One of the victims first spoke out in 2008, but prosecutors failed to press charges amid concerns that a jury might have questioned the girl's credibility.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating why that decision was made.
The case has also drawn calls for greater protection to be given to vulnerable children. Several of the victims were estranged from their families or in state care.
The Times newspaper reported Wednesday that there had been 631 cases in the past five years of girls in children's homes being sold for sex.
The trial at Liverpool Crown Court was a tense affair marred by allegations of intimidation.
Far-right groups such as the English Defense League and the British National Party led protests shortly after the trial began Feb. 6, and two nonwhite defense lawyers quit the case, saying they had been threatened.
A lawyer for one of the defendants called for the trial to be abandoned after British National Party leader Nick Griffin tweeted news about the jury's deliberations before they had returned their verdicts -- leading some to suspect a courtroom leak.
But Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of moderate Muslim think-tank the Ramadhan Foundation, said the trial had exposed a real problem that should not be ignored out of fear it would galvanize racists.
"We've got to reclaim the agenda from the BNP," he said. "Race is a contributing factor and police have to confront it.
"We obviously have a problem with some Pakistani men, criminals, who engage in this behavior believing that white girls are worthless and they can use and abuse them in this way."