Shackled by invisible handcuffs in a house of hell
Brainwashed, beaten and deprived of their freedom – so many questions remain in story of these brave women
SHE was a young Irishwoman who moved to London in her 20s, no doubt full of dreams and possibilities.
By the time she was 27, she was living a life she could never have dreamt of: brain-washed, beaten and deprived of her liberty and subjected to such extreme emotional control that she felt she could never escape. She was the victim of a failed cult.
Her dramatic rescue, along with two others who shared her life of servitude, from an "unremarkable" house in south-east London, and the subsequent arrest of their suspected captors last week, has generated enormous public interest.
One of the biggest unanswered questions was, how she and two other adult women could have remained enslaved in busy suburban London for more than three decades?
Yesterday, the Metropolitan police shed more light on what is proving to be a truly extraordinary story of modern slavery that started with a mysterious couple of Tanzanian and Indian origin who moved to the UK in the 1960s.
According to the police, the couple founded a "collective", attracting followers that included the young ideological Irishwoman and a Malaysian woman who was more than a decade older than her.
"Somehow, that collective came to an end and the women ended up continuing to live with the suspects," said police commander Steve Rodhouse.
A baby was born into the collective 30 years ago, whom police believe "has lived with the suspects and the other victims all her life".
"The people involved, the nature of that collective and how it operated is all subject to our investigation and we are slowly and painstakingly piecing together more information," he said.
"How this resulted in the women living in this way for over 30 years is what are seeking to establish, but we believe emotional and physical abuse has been a feature of all the victims' lives."
They owe their freedom to the now 57-year-old Irishwoman who had the courage to make a phone call.
ANALYSIS page 18
On September 9, a small London outfit called Freedom Charity promoted a new campaign aimed at raising awareness about missing schoolgirls.
Aneeta Prem, the group's founder and a magistrate in her own right, went on numerous television programmes to highlight how girls were being taken out of schools and forced into marriages.
She cuts a striking figure, anyway, but over her numerous television appearances, something in her demeanour and in the name of her charity – Freedom – had a life-changing resonance for the three women gathered around the television in the south-east London home.
The 57-year-old was the one who decided to act. As she later told Ms Prem, the Irishwoman turned to this small charity for help for two reasons.
They trusted her from her television appearances and the word 'Freedom' in the name of the organisation she founded also stuck.
So she had memorised the Freedom number that flashed up on screen during their campaign. On October 18, she got hold of a mobile phone. She spoke "in a whisper", telling the counsellor at the other end that she was Irish and that she had been held captive for 30 years.
She had at first talked about her "friend" but she later dropped that pretence.
"The Irish lady was incredibly distressed and that was the first time she made contact with anybody to ask for help," said Ms Prem.
As the call ended, the Irishwoman promised the counsellor that she would ring back. And over the following days, she did. It was always the Irishwoman who phoned at a pre-arranged time, usually in the early evening, and always from the same mobile phone.
Her main point of contact was Ms Prem's sister, Vineeta Thornhill. But the Irishwoman also spoke to Ms Prem, who found her "coherent" and very brave. The more they gained her trust, the more she told them.
They took things "at the Irish lady's own pace", they were "empathetic" and believed her story, Ms Prem said later.
"And offering them real support on how things were going to change when they came out. Talking about the future was very important."
The calls had to be at certain times, such as in the early evening and as the Irish lady wasn't supposed to be on the phone, she mostly could only talk for a short while.
"We were very aware that she was very afraid of being caught on the telephone, that someone would find out," said Ms Prem.
"I think it was after the third phone call that a lot more detail was being divulged and we could start really talking about how and when we were to get them out of the house," said Ms Prem.
Hers was a small charity used to dealing with young women spirited away by their families into forced marriages and victims of 'honour' violence. Ms Prem has even written a novel on the subject for young people.
But this, as she said blinking in the camera glare of a packed press conference on Friday, was an "outstanding" and "unprecedented" situation for the charity.
Early on, Ms Prem had passed on the information to the human trafficking unit of the Metropolitan Police. With their help, they co-ordinated how and when they would get the women out of the house.
It was not easy. The women had "second thoughts" and according to yesterday's police statement, they wanted assurances that no action would be taken against their captors.
The police agreed.
On Friday, October 25, the charity, including Ms Prem and her sister, arranged to be outside the property in Peckford Place, South London. There was also a police presence. The Irishwoman came out first, followed by the younger British woman. An hour passed before the older Malaysian woman ventured outside. According to a statement the police issued later, they had to go into the property and "rescue her".
Apparently, she had not been let in on the plan until a short time before, because the others were afraid that she might get frightened and tell the couple.
By all accounts, no one tried to stop them and police have not disclosed whether their supposed captors – the couple in their late sixties – were in the house at the time.
According to Ms Prem, it was an "emotional" and "highly charged" moment.There was much hugging and crying.
"The women threw their arms around me. At that moment, we all started crying and they all said individually to us, 'thank you for saving our lives'," said Ms Prem.
They phoned the charity's offices to let everyone know the women were out.
"The cheers could be heard around London," she said.
But in another extraordinary feature of this case, for all their years of captivity, the women "looked like ordinary Londoners, actually. You wouldn't have been able to recognise that they were being held".
They were in fact, "highly traumatised" and, in the words of police, have endured 30 years of extreme emotional abuse.
The extraordinary story of how the women walked to freedom after being deprived of their liberty for three decades did not become public until last Thursday.
It was almost four weeks since the women were rescued before police arrested the two prime suspects, who were arrested at their home at 7.30am last Thursday morning. While they were being questioned, police spent 12 hours searching their property. They later carted off 65 bags of evidence amounting some 2,500 exhibits.
The couple – whom we now know to be a man and a woman, both 67, and not British citizens – were later released on bail, on condition that they surrendered their passports and did not return to the supposed house of hell in Lambeth.
But according to yesterday's police statement: "The suspects are of Indian and Tanzanian origin that came to the UK in the 1960s.
"We believe that two of the victims met the male suspect in London through a shared political ideology, and that they lived together at an address that you could effectively call a 'collective'."
It was also "part of the agreement. . . that police would not at that stage take any action. Since that date, we have been working to gain their trust and evidence that came to fruition on November 21 when we were in a position to make arrests".
The compelling and disturbing story of modern-day enforced servitude behind the closed doors of a suburban house in south-east London has raised many questions – not least about what can go on behind closed doors in a residential neighbourhood of a big city.
By Friday morning, media packs had decamped to various streets in Lambeth, knocking on doors in search of the house and the suspected slave lords who lived there.
Sky News sent up a helicopter at one stage, but all leads came to nothing.
Lambeth is a mixed borough that lays claim to a large Portuguese community, south of the Thames. It's not up-market but it is not particularly down market, either.
One resident, Lydia Butler, who used to work in the British Library, was frankly disbelieving. On watching it on the news, she decided it was "an infinitely dodgy story".
"Even if it is controlled slavery. For 30 years? It is quite bizarre," she said.
But at a press conference in London on Friday, the Metropolitan police went to some lengths to emphasise that the case they were dealing with was "unique" and didn't compare with any of the cases of enforced labour or human trafficking that they had ever dealt with before. They said they did not believe the women were trafficked or that they were sexually abused.
According to Commander Steve Rodhouse, they knew that there was physical abuse, which the women described as "beatings". But there was nothing to suggest that the suspects were violent to others.
"It is not as brutally obvious as a woman being restrained inside an address and not being allowed to leave. What [the police] are trying to understand is what were the invisible handcuffs that were used to exert such a degree of control over these women?"
Yesterday, police came out with it, acknowledging that the women were the victims of what was in all but name, a cult. They are about to start house-to-house inquiries in the Lambeth area, which means that the location of the house of hell is about to become public knowledge.
The Irish authorities are completely in the dark about the identity of the 57-year-old Irish citizen who endured decades of trauma and abuse in London home.
There was speculation among Garda sources last night that the Irishwoman was originally from Co Armagh and had studied at a third-level institution in Dublin before moving to the UK, but the Met police could not confirm this.
The Met police have not been in touch with gardai or the PSNI, nor have they started efforts yet to reunite the women with their families, following "professional advice".
Its only contact has been with the Irish Embassy in London, which confirmed on Friday night that the police have not disclosed the name of the Irish citizen in their care.
Keeping "outsiders" away from the women is apparently all part of the "debriefing" process. The three women are now living in a secure unit together.
Specialist officers are trying to piece their stories together. They are in contact with their friends from the Freedom Charity. Ms Prem says she shows them pictures of her "loveable" dog, Diva, as a means of empathising and communicating with them.
She said she hopes they can now somehow rebuild their lives. According to Ms Prem, the Irishwoman and the Malaysian woman have talked a "great deal" about what went on in the house and also about their past lives before they ended up living in enforced servitude.
The older women have been forthcoming about their lives, both before and after their enslavement.
"They said a great deal to me about the family, but I can't comment on what they said," said Ms Prem.
"They have told us a great deal of information from their previous life. . . They are talking about the long term and about all the things that happened in their past. They were able to prove who they say they are. Police were able to confirm who they say they are."
It may not be as easy for the young British woman, who, it seems, was born into servitude, and knows nothing other than her life of emotional control. Her birth was registered and she is an acknowledged British citizen and although she can read and write, it's not thought that she ever went to school.
In the days leading up to their rescue, she came on the phone when discussing their escape plan. She told Ms Prem it was the first time she had ever used a telephone.
"I think occasionally we get a feeling we know things are wrong but we don't challenge, we don't question," Ms Prem said.
And the Irishwoman who eventually did was "incredibly brave".