Nine men in northwest England have been sentenced to jail for grooming girls as young as 13 for sex using alcohol and drugs.
Judge Gerald Clifton on Wednesday said the men, all of Pakistani or Afghan origin and ranging from age 22 to 59, had treated their victims as "worthless", and sentenced them for crimes including trafficking and rape.
The case has stirred racial tensions and sparked claims that UK authorities are failing to protect children in state care
The 59-year-old ringleader of the group received 19 years in jail, while others received between four and 12 years.
"All of you treated [the victims] as though they were worthless and beyond any respect," the judge told the nine men.
"One of the factors leading to that was the fact that they were not part of your community or religion."
Because all the defendants were South Asian and all the victims were white, the case has been seized upon by far-right groups, who protested outside the trial in Liverpool.
Others have pointed out that most sex crimes in Britain are committed by white men.
Even so, some have said there is a specific problem in northern English communities, where a toxic combination of alienated men and vulnerable, unsupervised girls has allowed exploitation to flourish.
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of Ramadhan foundation, a leading Muslim organisation in the UK, said there has been an "abject failure" in the country’s system to protect the young girls.
"There are serious questions about the Greater Manchester Police and the prosecution service," he said.
"One of the victims went to the police in 2008. She was told by the crime prosecution service she was no longer credible witness and she was sent back into an environment of abuse."
British police and the Crown Prosecution Service have apologised for delays in investigating the case after prosecutors failed to press charges four years ago.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating why that decision was made.
The case has also drawn calls for greater protection to be given to vulnerable children. Several of the victims were estranged from their families or in state care.
"This must not allow this to happen again," Shafiq said.
"Greater Manchester Police must be very honest about dealing with this issue. There should be no sensitivity what so ever about race. I say this as a British Pakistani who abhors what has happened. There should be no safe haven in our community for these people," he added.
Twenty-six men were arrested in the investigation, which identified 47 potential victims. Eleven men were charged and nine convicted of charges including rape, assault, sex trafficking and conspiracy.
The men abused the girls in taxis, kebab shops and apartments.
The five victims who shared their stories with jurors described being raped, assaulted and traded for sex. Sometimes they were passed from man to man and sometimes they were too drunk to stop the abuse.
The men used various defenses, including claiming the girls were prostitutes. Several said they did not know the age of consent in Britain, which is 16.
The trial at Liverpool Crown Court was a tense affair marred by allegations of intimidation.
Far-right groups such as the English Defence League and the British National Party led protests shortly after the trial began on February 6, and two nonwhite defense lawyers quit the case, saying they had been threatened.
A lawyer for one of the defendants said he would challenge the guilty verdict after Nick Griffin, leader of British National Party, tweeted news about the jury's deliberations before they had returned their verdicts - leading some to suspect a courtroom leak.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|