New Zealand police under fire over 'rape club' probe

WELLINGTON (AFP) - The New Zealand government ordered an independent inquiry on Thursday into allegations that police botched an investigation into an online "rape club" that preyed on underage girls.

Police Minister Anne Tolley said the case, which has sparked outrage in New Zealand, had been "poorly handled" and she had asked the police watchdog to conduct an inquiry.

"I believe this is the right course of action to ensure the public has confidence in the police on this matter," she said after meeting Police commissioner Peter Marshall on Thursday.

The case centres on a gang of young males calling themselves "Roast Busters", who boasted online about plying girls as young as 13 with alcohol then having group sex with them.

The Auckland-based group, most believed to be aged in their late teens, reportedly used Facebook to meet the girls then posted comments and videos on the social media site bragging about their exploits and humiliating their victims.

When the story broke earlier this week, Prime Minister John Key called the group's alleged actions "abhorrent" but said it was difficult for authorities to prosecute them due to a lack of hard evidence.

Police at the time said they had been aware of the group for two years but took no action because none of its alleged victims was willing to testify against them.

But it has since emerged that four girls complained to police as far back as 2011, including one who made a formal statement featuring video testimony about what she endured.

That girl, her identity obscured, told TV3 on Wednesday evening that she did not feel police were supportive and they focused on why she wore a skirt when she met members of the group in 2011.

"They said that I didn't have enough evidence to show, because I went out in clothes that was pretty much asking for it," said the girl, who was aged 13 at the time.

Ms Tolley said the police treatment of the girl would be part of the Independent Police Conduct Authority inquiry.

"Parents of young girls need to have confidence that complaints to police about sexual assault are investigated thoroughly and appropriately," she said.

Victims' rights advocates such as Greens MP and former sexual abuse counsellor Jan Logie have said that if the claims made by Roast Busters members are true then it amounts to a "rape club" and they should be charged accordingly.

Police superintendent Bill Searle said officers were now reviewing evidence and hoping to speak to victims again to see if a prosecution was possible.

"We will look at the whole evidence, at the time, to make a proper assessment," he told Radio New Zealand.

Mr Searle said investigators were aware "very early on" that one of the alleged gang members was the son of a police officer but the fact had no bearing on how the case was handled.

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