‘For the accused young men and the young woman at the centre of this case this has been a living nightmare. We have real concerns about how they were treated – it just seems that it is open season on Pakistanis and a real failure of duty of care on the part of agencies and the police in preventing all this happening’
Zia Ullah, Justice4Paps
Operation Ribbon, a major Thames Valley Police operation against child sexual exploitation took place in November last year and led to the arrest of 10 men on child sexual offences charges who were all from the Pakistani community in High Wycombe. In the last month all the men have been released and all charges have been dropped with seven being found not guilty and three have had their cases dismissed.
The Justice for Habib ‘Paps’ Ullah (Justice4Paps) campaign was set up in July 2008 after the death of Habib during a routine stop and search in a car park in High Wycombe in 2008. Over the last five years the family has campaigned for a full and thorough investigation into his death. We have additionally been supporting other deaths in custody and cases of police brutality in the Thames Valley area. Justice4Paps has been monitoring Operation Ribbon and we have a number of concerns about what has happened.
The initial reporting of this case was very high profile with YouTube videos, a presence on Facebook and front pages of local newspaper as well as national and regional media coverage. This contrasts with the low key way that the end of the trial has been covered – with important statements being ‘buried’ in the later pages of the Bucks Free Press and very little being reported online.
We are also extremely concerned that the press coverage to date has never reflected the fact that the victim was of Asian origin, whereas in other cases involving White victims, their ethnicity has received wide coverage. We share with other commentators the worry about how racialised the narrative around child sexual exploitation has become and the failure of the police, authorities and the media to invisibilise the victim’s ethnicity is extremely significant. Furthermore referring to the men who were apprehended as a ‘gang’ is also extremely worrying as there is little evidence that they operated in this way.
This case raises a number of key questions: Now that the ten men have been cleared, will a full and frank apology be offered to them? What on-going support will there be for the men and their families – in particular women and children – as they were identified in the press continually both before and during the trial? Given the police’s failure to declare the ethnicity of the victim, how will the police restore confidence so that women and children who are victims of abuse and domestic violence feel confident to come forward and report incidents? Most critically while the Thames Valley Police has played out the High Wycombe case in the full glare of press and media publicity why have they exercised double standards in failing to release information about 169 police officers who are being currently investigated for sexual offences against vulnerable women?
Justice4Paps also has questions about the timing of the raids on Tuesday 20 November 2012. Who made the decision to launch the raids and was the decision made in the light of the Panorama feature the night before which showed Thames Valley Police in a negative light? In our view the Operation and the trial was rushed and unsatisfactory and even if we were to assume that the men were guilty, the police evidence would not have been robust enough to convict the accused. Furthermore justice was not served in terms of the treatment meted out to the victim. The victim was a very vulnerable witness who was put under tremendous pressure to testify. The aggressive attacks made on her byJudge Pringle that was widely reported in the press was uncalled for and had the effect of demeaning her character and evidence.
We have serious concerns that the fear of child exploitation/grooming has itself been abused in order to launch a number of raids in the community and it has been used as a fishing operation through the use of an open warrant.
As part of Operation Ribbon there were a number of other subsequent raids on a number of houses but the outcomes relating to these operations have not been publicized. This has led to widespread suspicion in the community that the issue of child sexual exploitation and grooming is being abused to launch speculative raids in Pakistani Muslim neighbourhoods. Interestingly to date there has there been no response from Bucks County Council’s R U Safe project, the Independent Advisory Group (IAG) and the main mosque in High Wycombe – all parties that have had varyingly degrees of involvement prior to and during the Operation and the subsequent trial. Normally a ‘community’ response is released after an operation like this and the absence of any statements does not elicit any confidence in these agencies or the process.
Overall we are very concerned that this whole case has been ‘buried’ and conveniently put to bed without discussion or any transparency. We will be pushing for a public meeting with the authorities and agencies involved and will be approaching both the local MP Steve Baker and Thames Valley Police and Crime Commissioner Anthony Stansfeld for a public inquiry into the Operation so there can be full and proper public accountability.