LONDON – When Sian Davies died after mysteriously falling out of a window in a south London house 16 years ago, her family was stunned — they had not seen her for two decades.
Davies had moved from Wales to London as a young woman pursuing a master's degree, but soon she cut off virtually all contact with her family and disappeared from sight. Her relatives found out she had joined a secretive, closely-knit Maoist group whose members lived together in a communist collective. The family knew little else, and was none the wiser even after her death.
"We kept saying she would come back. But of course she never did," said Eleri Morgan, a cousin of Davies'. In the end, Morgan got to see her estranged cousin only in the morgue.
The disappearance and unexplained death of Davies raised a few murmurs about the nature and work of the far-left group she was involved in. But it wasn't until last month, when it emerged that the same collective allegedly held three women against their will for 30 years, that the obscure group came under full scrutiny.
The revelation that the women could be held in servitude for so long in a London house, in what police described as the largest ever case of modern-day slavery in Britain, sent shockwaves across the country. The captive women, police say, were cut off from the outside world by "invisible handcuffs" and brainwashing. They also appeared to have fallen into the arrangement through some shared political ideology.
Those allegations have raised many questions about the Workers Institute of Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought, a tiny sect with just a handful of members that split from Britain's many leftist groups in the 1970s.
Steve Rayner, a University of Oxford professor who spent time studying the Maoist group in the late 1970s, said the Workers Institute was a small, secretive band headed by a man called Aravindan Balakrishnan, 73, known as "Comrade Bala."
According to Rayner, the group's core consisted of just about 13 people living as a "communist collective" in south London's Brixton area. Its members wore Mao badges, shared earnings, and were fiercely exclusive. They rejected all alliances with other leftwing groups, and denounced the government and all of its institutions as fascist. Indeed, when a TV crew pursued the members for an interview after Davies' death in 1997, one of the women freed last month repeatedly called the journalists lackeys of the "fascist state" and shut the door in their faces.
The fanatical devotees of Mao believed the Chinese People's Liberation Army would take over the world by the end of 1977, Rayner added.
The Workers' Institute may sound like an extreme outlier but it was just one of the many revolutionary groups that thrived in the political and cultural ferment of the late 1960s and 1970s.
At the time, Mao's ideas were seen as appealing to some in Europe who believed his revolution had brought China a more equal society.
"It was all about challenging the authority," said Michel Hockx, director of the China Institute at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.
It was in this environment that Davies, said by her cousin to have been an intelligent, fun loving young woman who had moved to London after completing a law degree, got caught up in Comrade Bala's cult.
Her cousin, Morgan, told The Associated Press that they used to go out together on weekends, but the two grew apart as the Maoist collective gained influence.
Soon, all contact was lost.
"She was a very bright girl from a good family," she said. "I'm shocked that she would go and follow a man like that."
Ian Haworth, founder of Britain's Cult Information Center, said brainwashing techniques appear to have been used to keep the three women in the group. Experts in cult strategies have often studied the way the Chinese government used such techniques during Mao's reign, he said.
"The woman saying, 'you're part of the fascist state' again and again — I would simply say that whatever combinations of techniques are being employed are clearly working," he said. "The idea of them being psychologically held for 30 years makes a great deal of sense to me."
Hockx, the professor of Chinese studies, said Maoism should not be blamed for the London cult. But he acknowledged that extreme propaganda — bombarding people with slogans until they are afraid of being caught not repeating them — was a key feature during the height of China's Cultural Revolution.
Through the years Davies sent a few letters home, and broke her silence only once — in 1996. She phoned but said very little, brushing aside concerns about her wellbeing, Morgan said.
"The next time I saw her was in the morgue," said Morgan, who was furious that the collective had not notified her family during the seven months Davies survived in a hospital after the fall.
"They gave no chance to her mother to say goodbye to her only daughter," Morgan said. "They showed no compassion at all. It was just cruel."
When the 1997 inquest ended without reaching a clear conclusion about the cause of Davies' death, a commune member, Josephine Herivel, approached Morgan and asked if they could talk about Davies.
Morgan rebuffed her. "I said no," Morgan said. "I just said what you had done is wicked, or words to that effect."
Fast forward 16 years, and Herivel, now 57, was identified as one of the three women who claim they were held against their will in the collective.
Police have arrested two suspects from the house the women were kept in. The suspects have been set free on bail pending a court hearing in January.
The British press has identified Balakrishnan and his wife Chanda, 67, as the two suspects. The Metropolitan Police say they will not identify the suspects since they have not been charged with any crime. However, one police spokesman, who demanded anonymity because he is not allowed to let his name be used, noted that the police have not asked any media organizations to change reports naming the two suspects.
Morgan believes that a second, 30-year-old victim, believed to have spent her entire life in captivity, may be Davies' daughter — a relation her estranged family never knew about. News reports have named the victim as Rosie Davies.
Police say the third victim is a 69-year-old Malaysian woman. A woman who believes she is the victim's sister has flown from Malaysia to London to try and help the freed woman. She described her missing sister as an intelligent, ambitious student who fell under the Maoists' influence years ago.
Morgan said she hopes that the slavery arrests will help shed some light on what happened to her cousin — and establish whether she did leave behind a daughter.
"If she is Sian's daughter, then she is family," she said.
Associated Press writer Gregory Katz contributed to this report.