LONDON • A gang of 18 people has been found guilty of trafficking and sexually abusing vulnerable teenage girls and young women for several years in northern England, prosecutors said, in the latest shocking case of its kind in Britain.
The men raped or assaulted the victims after drugging them or threatening them with violence at specially convened "parties" - often referred to as "sessions" - where they were supplied with drugs and alcohol. Some were so inebriated they were abused while unconscious.
The offenders were predominantly Asian and in their 30s and 40s, raising echoes of a number of similar cases in Britain which led to accusations that the authorities had feared to get involved in case they were accused of racism.
But Northumbria police chief Steve Ashman said on Wednesday: "These are criminals and there has been no hesitation in arresting them and targeting them using all the means at our disposal."
Prosecutors said the gang - 17 men and one woman - had targeted 13 white girls and women, aged from 15 to their early 20s, in the city of Newcastle in north-west England between 2010 and 2014. The offenders were found guilty following four trials, the last of which concluded on Tuesday.
Three have been jailed and the others are awaiting sentence.
Chief Constable Ashman said the wider police investigation into sexual exploitation in the area, known as Operation Sanctuary, was the largest and most intricate operation his force had ever undertaken. In total, officers had arrested 461 people, leading to 93 convictions, he said. "Most of the offenders are not white. They are from a really diverse section, so we have people from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq; people who are Kurdish, Turkish, Albanian, eastern European."
He also defended the decision to pay a convicted child rapist about £10,000 (S$18,000) to act as an informant, saying he had helped police to prevent serious crimes.
Newcastle City Council said more than 700 victims had been identified as part of Operation Sanctuary. "We do not believe that what we have uncovered... is unique," said Mr Pat Ritchie, the council's chief executive. "Sadly, there is evidence of sexual exploitation in just about every other town and city in the country, and (those) who say they do not have it are not looking for it."