The 36-day ordeal of a victim of sexual abuse raises fresh questions over the treatment of vulnerable victims as her abuser is jailed for 13 years.
Pensioner Ilyas Ashar, who subjected a young girl to a life of “misery and degradation”, was sentenced to 13 years in prison after being found guilty of trafficking her into the country, raping her and using her as his domestic servant.
The girl, who is deaf and mute, was praised for her “fortitude, courage and extraordinary resilience” after spending a total of 36 days on the witness stand.
We are only going to prosecute more of these cases, if we are supporting vulnerable witnesses better Nicola Blackwood MP
But her courtroom ordeal highlights already pressing concerns over the treatment of vulnerable witnesses.
The girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was beaten and forced to sleep and work in the cellar of Ashar’s five-bed family home in Salford, in Greater Manchester.
Speaking to Channel 4 News after the jury reached its verdict earlier this month, Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood paid tribute to the girl’s bravery.
She said: “I don’t think any of us could imagine just how much courage it takes to give evidence against your abusers when you have been trafficked into this country, raped and subjected to nothing less than domestic slavery.
Ms Blackwood sits on parliament’s home affairs select committee and a major child sex abuse gang was caught in her Oxfordshire constituency in 2012.
She added: “Even with special measures and intermediaries, she was 36 days on the stand and we have got to do better. Because we are only going to prosecute more of these cases, if we are supporting vulnerable witnesses better.”
She is also running a campaign to tighten the laws around child sexual exploitation and has introduced a bill in parliament to that end.
Earlier this month, the Crown Prosecution Service introduced new guidelines giving prosecutors and police greater powers to investigate child sex abuse cases.
The CPS also listed commons myths about sexually exploited children, including the assertion that “there is no one model of child sexual abuse” and reinforcing the principle that a child cannot consent to sex under any circumstances.
That announcement followed the outrage that erupted after it emerged that a judge and prosecutor described a 13-year-old victim of sexual abuse as a “sexual predator” in court.
A young woman with great fortitude, courage and extraordinary resilience, not only in coming to terms with the treatment she received at the hands of Mr and Mrs Ashar, but also the way she stood up in court. – Peter Cadwallader, prosecutor
During Ashar’s trial, the court heard that the 84-year-old sexually abused the girl from the moment he brought her into the UK from Pakistan aged around 10 in June 2000.
While Ashar used his victim to satisfy his sexual desires the girl was also used to steal more than £30,000 in benefits.
For almost a decade the victim had to work for the Ashars, who are understood to have a number of business interests and rental properties.
Their victim, who had no family or friends in the UK, and had never been to school in Pakistan or Britain, was taught by the Ashars to sign her name to claim benefits.
Though her exact age is not known, the girl was sexually abused from pre-puberty, Minshull Street Crown Court heard, by Ilyas Ashar.
He would routinely rape the girl in the cellar and other houses the family owned – though she would try to fight him off.
Ashar was convicted of 13 specimen counts of rape by a jury last week, though the court heard the rapes happened “many, many times more”.
He had also been convicted at an earlier trial of two counts of trafficking a person into the UK for exploitation, two counts of furnishing false information to obtain a benefit and one of permitting furnishing of false information to obtain a benefit.
His wife, Tallat Ashar, 68, will be sentenced for two counts of trafficking a person into the UK for exploitation and four counts of furnishing false information to obtain a benefit.
Their daughter, Faaiza Ashar, 46, was found guilty at an earlier trial of two counts of furnishing false information to obtain a benefit and one count of permitting furnishing of false information to obtain a benefit.
Tallat Ashar was jailed for five years and their daughter given a 12-month community order with 300 hours of unpaid work.
Passing sentence Judge Peter Lakin said: “You Ilyas Ashar and you Tallat Ashar did not treat this girl as a human being.
“To you she was merely an object to be used, abused and cast aside at will. You took full advantage of her extreme vulnerability. You exploited her physically, you exploited her mentally and you exploited her economically. There was throughout a distasteful undercurrent of violence and intimidation.
“All that she had in her life was the love of her family and her own human dignity. You two took that away from her. You consigned her to a life of misery and degradation.
“Throughout these proceedings not one of you have shown any remorse. You are concerned with your own selfish, self-centred interests. You Ilyas and Tallat Ashar are deeply unpleasant, highly manipulative and dishonest people.”
Peter Cadwallader, prosecuting, told the court the victim could not be named because she is a victim of sexual offences.
But he said an appropriate name would be “Miss Courageous” – after spending 36 days in total on the witness stand, 34 of which were spent being cross-examined by the Ashars’ lawyers.
“She is a remarkable young woman. A young woman with great fortitude, courage and extraordinary resilience, not only in coming to terms with the treatment she received at the hands of Mr and Mrs Ashar, but also the way she stood up in court,” he said.
36 days in a witness box for a trafficked deaf rape victim has led to 13 years in jail for her abuser
— simon israel (@simonisrael) October 23, 2013
“She was the victim of threats and violence throughout her life from being a little girl. She was the subject of forced labour. Many of the elements of servitude are present.
“She was physically abused, sexually abused by Ilyas Ashar – that included being raped by him.”
The girl was never given any schooling and could not read or write – except for being taught to sign her name by the Ashars so she could claim benefits.
Mr Cadwallader said the victim would spend “hours and hours” in the cellar and only one member of the Ashar family was ever kind to her.
The girl wanted to return to her family in Pakistan almost from the moment she arrived in the UK – but the Ashars would not allow it.
The prosecutor added: “She had no choice over her life; where she lived, what she did, where she slept.
“She knew nothing else.”
The girl was often slapped or hit and would be dragged up the cellar stairs into the house if she did not come quickly enough when summoned.
After coming to the UK, despite her apparent young age, as a domestic servant she was allowed to remain on an annual basis on condition that she did not make a claim on public funds.
But by July 2005 she was given leave to remain indefinitely – and within two weeks the Ashars began claiming housing, council tax and income support for the girl.
She was never paid for the work she did for the Ashar family but also never received a penny of the £36,045 in benefits they claimed for her.
When police and local trading standards raided the Ashar family home in June 2009, officers were “shocked” to discover the girl asleep in the cold and dark cellar.
They noted something was “amiss” when she got up, went upstairs and, instead of sitting on a chair in the kitchen, sat on a plastic stool.
One officer likened her behaviour to that of an “animal” – not allowed to sit on the furniture – and an indication of her status in the house.
She was taken from the house and is now doing well with the help of social services, the court heard.
A proceeds of crime hearing will be held next year to recoup the benefits stolen by the Ashars.
They had fought the case at every turn, mounting a series of legal challenges and appealing but failing to overturn their convictions at the Court of Appeal.