Former prosecutor condemns ‘guilty by Twitter’ abuse cases

Nazir Afzal calls for balance in reporting and says more research on street grooming needed

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The public naming of people accused of sexual harassment is leading to trial by social media, says the former chief prosecutor for the North West.

Nazir Afzal, who led the successful prosecution of a street grooming gang in Rochdale in 2012, said the widespread speculation about alleged offenders was “worrying”, although he acknowledged that it could lead to further victims coming forward.

Afzal said he knew Carl Sargeant, the Welsh Labour politician who was found dead last week after being accused by three women of improper conduct. Sargeant had maintained his innocence and complained that he was unable to defend himself because the nature of the allegations against him had not been made clear.

Afzal said: “I’m uncomfortable with what’s been happening in recent weeks – that people were found guilty by Twitter.”

‘Girls were credible’

As Crown chief prosecutor for the North West, Afzal led the prosecution of TV presenter Stuart Hall, who was found guilty of a number of cases of indecent assault on girls. Some victims came forward following media coverage of his arrest. But Afzal said: “A balance needs to be struck.”

Afzal was head of the Crown Prosecution Service in the North West in 2011-2015, after nearly 20 years with the CPS in London, where he was the first ethnic minority Crown prosecutor and led on high-profile cases such as the killing of Baby P.

Early in his spell in the North West, he decided to overturn a previous CPS decision not to prosecute 12 men accused of rape and trafficking girls for sex, most of whom were of British-Pakistani origin.

Afzal, speaking at an event organised by the Big Life Group – owner of Big Issue North – said the original decision not to prosecute was based partly on a belief that the victims would be unreliable witnesses. Gang members had claimed the victims had willingly had sex with them.

But, given the right support, “these girls were credible,” he said.

“It was a nonsense that juries wouldn’t convict them.”

Night-time economy

Nine men were convicted, with sentences of up to 19 years, and street grooming was put under the spotlight. There were further successful prosecutions in Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxfordshire and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, all mainly involving British-Pakistani men.

Afzal said it was important to remember that most child sex abuse took place within families, then online and then in institutions. Street grooming is a smaller problem but “British Asians are disproportionally represented in it”, he said.

That was partly because they worked extensively in the night-time economy, he said, where vulnerable young victims were looking for transport, warmth, food and drink.

He said: “One Rotherham victim said: ‘Grooming was the nicest thing that ever happened to me.’”

But he said more academic research is needed on the subject and that the original decision not to prosecute was down to “incompetence” rather than a fear of being seen as racist, as some have claimed.

Far right outpouring

Despite Afzal’s willingness to prosecute, he still became a target for far right groups that wanted to convey the impression that all foreigners could be tarred with the same brush. They blamed him for the original decision not to prosecute in Rochdale – even though he was in London at the time.

Because of their threats, Greater Manchester Police put an officer outside his house, the English Defence League demonstrated nearby and he had to install a panic button. There were 17,000 emails calling for him to be sacked, including one to President Obama.

“I come from Birmingham. I don’t want to go back there,” he quipped.

“I was not prepared for the reaction of the far right. As an Asian prosecuting Asian men I damaged their narrative and they decided to go for me. It was the first example of fake news I’d come across. There was a phenomenal outpouring of hate towards me.”

‘Chaos at the ranch’

At one stage the far right nearly derailed the trial. While the jury was deliberating, former BNP leader Nick Griffin tweeted that he knew which way its members were planning to vote.

Concerned that the defence would call for a mistrial because the jury was discussing the case with other people, the CPS urged the judge to investigate. When he found no evidence for Griffin’s claim, the trial continued.

“That caused chaos at the ranch,” admitted Afzal. “Right up to the end those obstacles were facing us.”

Afzal, who was awarded the OBE in 2005, stood down from the CPS in 2015. “When I left we had the highest rate of child sex abuse prosecutions in our history,” he said. “Was that a good thing or a bad thing? A good thing, I’d say. I left because I was bored. And because a prosecution is a failure – someone’s been harmed. We should aim higher in trying to eliminate it.”

Sara Rowbotham, the sexual health worker whose repeated warnings about the Rochdale victims were ignored, was later made redundant. Afzal said that whistleblowers should be encouraged.

“We have risk-averse authrorities that don’t want people to be whistleblowing, don’t want people to be challenging them,” he said. “It’s a nonsense. They should be celebrated.

“We should have the black box mentality of the airline industry where you are not only encouraged but required to report safety concerns. That’s where we should be with any of our public authorities. Sadly, that’s not where we are.”

Afzal went on to become chief executive of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners before resigning this year in frustration at his employer preventing him from making media appearances in the wake of the Manchester terror attack.

While at the CPS he said he had changed the culture so that prosecutors would go out into society to explain their work and find out public concerns, enabling them to make better informed decisions. “I’m proud that victims wanted to talk to me,” he said.

That work, he said, “has gone backwards in the last three or four years because of lack of funding but in previous decades we were out there”.

Afzal himself had to let 130 CPS lawyers go when he came to the North West in 2011. Recent media reports have claimed that further budget cuts have left the CPS in crisis, with overworked staff unable to do their jobs properly and low conviction rates.

“The CPS is struggling,” said Afzal. “The government has reduced their budgets and reduced their budgets. Crime was going down but now it’s going up so there’s more work to do with fewer staff. The CPS is not in crisis but it’s hard – morale is not high.”

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