ROCHDALE, England -- 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.
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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."
Beneath the surface
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.
She was trapped in a secret world of sex acts that took place late at night when most people in Rochdale were safely tucked away in their homes.
Offenders don't fit profile
The Rochdale men do not fit the classic profile for sex offenders in Britain -- the majority of pedophilia crimes are committed by white men who target boys and girls via the Internet. However, there is a consensus among prosecutors, police, social workers and leading national politicians that "street grooming," which happened in Rochdale, is largely dominated by Asian men.
Ella Cockbain, a University College of London crime science specialist, says research shows that mostly Asian men make up the big groups of offenders who work together. She chooses her words carefully because the sample size is small and the topic sensitive.
"There are definite patterns emerging that would be foolish to ignore," she says.
Mohammed Shafiq, a British Pakistani who directs the Ramadhan Foundation in Rochdale, has angered some in his own community by suggesting that police at first did not pursue the case aggressively for fear of appearing racist because of an obsession "with the doctrine of political correctness."
Shafiq says that a "tiny minority" of Pakistani men feel white girls are worthless and immoral -- and can be abused with impunity.
"They know if they took someone from the Asian community, it pretty quickly is going to be found out," he says. "But those white girls are available, so they think they can get away with it."
The men in the Rochdale sex ring were remarkable only in their ordinariness. They were part of British life, but on the fringes -- the sort of people most Britons don't really notice when they pass them on the street.
Many were taxi drivers, accustomed to working all-night shifts with long down time between fares, and they frequented the late-night kebab takeout shops offering familiar lamb, chicken and falafel dishes. Their cab stands and the kebab shops were often the only businesses that remained open after the bars closed.
Most of the men were first or second generation Pakistanis raised mainly in Britain. Only one had faced previous sex charges: Ringleader Shabir Ahmed, at 59 the oldest in the group, who was accused of repeatedly raping a young girl in a separate case. Ahmed, known to the girls as "Daddy," was convicted of 30 counts of rape in that case last week.
Some of the men had families and small businesses. The ring included Abdul Rauf, 43, who would later claim to have experience as a Muslim preacher, which local Islamic leaders dismiss as a total fabrication. A few had ongoing contacts with local politicians.
The men were neither affluent nor dirt poor. They lived outwardly stable lives but had few obvious prospects for advancement.
They were finally brought to justice after health workers reported a large increase in the number of underage girls in the Rochdale area claiming to have suffered sexual abuse. The next year, Afzal, the new regional chief of the Crown Prosecution Service, reversed the earlier decision by prosecutors and decided to press the case in court, with Girl A at its core.
"It was a no-brainer," Afzal told The Associated Press. "She was immensely credible. And the police now had evidence of a wide network."
Eleven men were charged with offenses ranging from rape to conspiracy, and police suspect more were involved. The men had such psychological power over the girls that even during the trial, one girl talked of a defendant as her boyfriend.
Parliament has launched an inquiry based in part on reports that the abuse is far more widespread than originally thought. Afzal said his office is handling roughly a dozen other similar cases, including one that involves 13 men accused of operating a sex ring with 24 girls.
Afzal says that as a Muslim he is sickened by the crimes.
"Rape and alcohol and abuse are not part of Islam," he says. "Just because they have a beard and go to the mosque doesn't make them good Muslims."
Tensions erupt at trial
As the Rochdale trial reached court, the issue of race and religion burst into the open.
One far-right protester carried a sign making reference to the meat favored by many observant Muslims because it meets strict religious guidelines. "Our girls are not Halal meat," the sign read.
Inside the court, Ahmed, a key defendant, fought back hard. He accused the all-white jury of racism. He accused one girl of thinking whites were superior, and denigrated them all as greedy money seekers. And he accused white society of neglecting its girls and tolerating, even encouraging, bad behavior.
"You white people train them in sex and drinking, so when they come to us they are fully trained," he said.
The jury found nine men guilty and set two free. Judge Gerald Clifton articulated what many felt but were reluctant to say out loud when he accused the men of treating white girls as worthless because "they were not of your community or religion." Then he sentenced them to a total of 77 years in prison.
The May verdict further polarized Rochdale. Pakistanis were horrified at the stigma on their community and enraged that the men claimed to be Muslim.
"They are playing the Muslim card, pretending they are good Muslims, but they are not," says Irfan Chishti, who runs an educational program at one of the town's mosques. "This was a great sin under Islam. If Sharia law was in place, the punishment would be very severe."
Even while he and other leaders of the Rochdale Council of Mosques were discussing the case, about 40 protesters from the far-right British National Party held an unauthorized rally on the nearby Town Hall steps. The far right has seized on the case, claiming that some British Pakistanis follow a code they believe is practiced in parts of the Islamic world that allows men to have sex with girls under 16.
Louis Kushnick, founder of the race relations resource center at the University of Manchester, said it has become convenient for white residents -- including those beyond the far-right movement -- to blame Muslims for the sex crimes.
"You hear people talking about this, and it becomes tied to Islam," he says. "People say they are Muslim men, they see women as inferior, they have contempt for white women, so it has nothing to do with the rest of us."
That view overlooks all the problems that left the girls vulnerable in the first place, he says, citing a deficient school system and a government-backed child care regime riddled with neglect and abuse. And he says the prolonged economic downturn has intensified resentments, with whites and Asians competing for the same "crap" jobs.
"Blaming the Muslims lets us avoid addressing these questions," he says. "Once we blame `The Other,' we think we have an explanation that makes sense."
Many in Rochdale are wary about discussing the case. Graduate student Heather Eyre, 25, says the trial has badly divided the city.
"It shouldn't have mattered that they are Pakistani," she says of the abusers. "But it's stirred up hatred. Some say they should be deported, and some parts of the Asian community say the jury was racist. Then the far-right groups came in ... this case has been good for the English Defense League."
The girl who first told police about the abuse, now a young woman of 19, has moved out of the area. In a brief pooled interview before she withdrew from the public eye, she refused to call the crimes against her racial in nature, but said she was shocked Muslims would commit such acts.
She said that in 2008, when the grooming began, there was no awareness of this type of crime involving Asian men and white girls.
"Now it's going on everywhere," she said. "You think of Muslim men as religious and family-minded and just nice people. You don't think ... I don't know ... You just don't think they'd do things like that."
When the abuse started, she said, she felt anger and shame, then became resigned and, finally, numb.
"After a while it had been going for so long and so many different men that it became like I didn't feel anything toward it anymore," she said. "It just weren't me anymore. It just became something I had to do ... Once you're in it, you're trapped. I just think what they did to me was evil."