LONDON (AFP) – A senior British prosecutor denied on Wednesday that there was a "witch-hunt" of celebrities after a star of the long-running soap "Coronation Street" was acquitted on child sex abuse charges.
Michael Le Vell, familiar to millions of viewers as the car workshop owner Kevin Webster, was the first celebrity to be tried in the wake of the paedophile scandal involving the late BBC presenter Jimmy Savile.
Le Vell, 48, mouthed the words "thank you" after a jury in Manchester, northwest England, cleared him of 12 charges of sexually abusing a girl, now aged 17, on Tuesday.
Several of his fellow "Coronation Street" cast members claim Le Vell, who was removed from the soap after he was charged but will now hold talks with producers on returning, was only in the dock because of his celebrity status.
Nazir Afzal, England's lead prosecutor on child sexual exploitation, took an initial decision not to charge Le Vell after he was first arrested in September 2011, but that decision was overruled and the case went to trial.
Afzal insisted on Wednesday that each case was assessed on its own merits, regardless of whether a suspect had a high profile.
"I absolutely detest this word 'witch-hunt'. It is not a witch-hunt," he said.
"We look at the evidence. We follow the evidence. We present the evidence."
"I am not shy about pursuing these type of cases and will continue to do so," he added.
"The vast majority of child sex abusers are not your public figures... and they cannot be allowed to get away with it because of some discourse about 'This is some kind of campaign' that is following what happened with (Jimmy) Savile... or whoever it may be."
Afzal said he himself had been spoken of as a "celeb hunter".
"I don't even know what a 'celeb hunter' is," he said. "Nobody should be above the law in this country."
Speaking of the Le Vell trial, actor Ken Morley, who played supermarket manager Reg Holdsworth in "Coronation Street", told the Daily Mail: "There was never any physical or forensic evidence or psychiatric report.
"I think it will make people revise their attitudes and realise there has been an element of hysteria."
Le Vell's aunt, Pat Gallier, told the same newspaper: "The police seem to be arresting celebrities and accusing them of child sex offences without seeming to check if there's enough evidence.
"Michael's been caught up in this witch-hunt."
Since Savile's death in 2001, it has emerged that he was a prolific abuser of under-age girls and boys.
Fourteen people, many of them ageing celebrities, have been arrested under the police operation set up in the wake of the Savile revelations.
Former BBC radio presenter Dave Lee Travis and high-profile agent Max Clifford are set to face trial over sex allegations, while Australian-born entertainer Rolf Harris has also been charged.