Heywood: Rochdale town at the centre of child sex ring

Youths clashing with police
Image caption A takeaway business had its windows smashed in February

The usually quiet town of Heywood has been rocked since finding itself at the centre of child sex allegations that sparked far-right protests and waves of vandalism.

A ten-week trial at Liverpool Crown Court heard that five girls were groomed for sex and "shared" by nine men from Heywood and Rochdale.

The men plied the girls, some as young as 13, with drink and drugs before forcing them to have sex.

However, while the arrest and charging of the men - eight from Pakistan and one from Afghanistan - could have been an end to the problem, it was when their trial hit the headlines that more trouble began.

In February, a gang of about 100 youths gathered outside the Tasty Bites takeaway in Heywood, which had been mentioned in court as being at the centre of the grooming ring.

What followed was a violent and verbal attack which police said was "misjudged and against innocent members of the community".

Windows were smashed even though the business was, by then, under new management, who have renamed the takeaway.

But new owner, Mushtaq Ahmed, said people were outside "knocking on the windows shouting abusive words - 'we want rapists out, we want this out, we want that out.'

"They were calling us various names as well," he said. "Most of them knew that we had nothing to do with it."

Publicity around the trial - which involved 11 defendants, two of whom have been cleared by the jury - also prompted demonstrations by far-right groups, both outside the court and in Heywood.

Police insist the grooming was sexually, not racially-motivated, and the girls were targeted because they were vulnerable not because they are white.

Despite this, far-right protesters staged a demonstration in the town almost every week during the trial, eager to exploit any racial tensions.

The BNP's Nick Griffin even came to Heywood in an attempt to recruit new members.

'Don't feel safe'

Stephen Campbell runs a taxi firm that employs nearly 80 drivers, some of whom have given up work through fear of being targeted by demonstrators.

"The staff don't feel safe coming to work anymore," he said.

"The drivers are driving around and they're always worrying who's getting in the car next.

"The job totals are down. We've had drivers leaving because they're too scared to work in Heywood. It's generally been bad for business."

Image caption Imam Irfan Chishti from Rochdale Council of Mosques said he was "sickened" by the case

Imam Irfan Chishti, from Rochdale Council of Mosques, said he was "sickened" by the case.

"It was very shocking to see fellow British Muslims brought to court for this kind of horrific offence," he said.

"But I'm glad to see that all segments of the Rochdale community have spoken out about it."

Rochdale Council has been tackling the problem of grooming by running an education programme warning schoolchildren of the dangers of child sexual exploitation.

So far, 10,000 high school students have taken part.

Emily Nickson, who runs the sessions, said: "The content of the session is around sexual exploitation - what it is, who it might happen to, who might be a perpetrator.

"We look at online risks and how to keep them safe using social networking sites. We explain young people's rights and we talk about the law in terms of sexual consent.

"It's not a new subject, they already know about it, but we want to make them aware of the actual facts and how to keep themselves safe and less vulnerable."

The sessions are already paying off. One teenager who took part realised that her cousin was being groomed.

Positive message

"She was being given bracelets and rings and all sorts of jewellery," she said.

"After the talk she thought about it twice and thought it was the wrong thing to do, so she walked away from it."

It's too early to say whether the problem of child exploitation has been removed.

But the town is determined to move on with a positive message.

"Heywood has always been a welcoming community," said Father Paul Daly, a Roman Catholic priest from the Salford Diocese.

"We've got people of different races, people from different parts of the world, people from different faiths.

"It's always been a harmonious community and I think some of what we've seen came as quite a shock really to the people of Heywood themselves.

"Probably it's made us stronger because of that."

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