A man who treated his wife as a slave and subjected her to an existence of “violence, intimidation, aggression and misery” has been jailed following a pioneering trial which saw him become the first Briton convicted of forcing their spouse into domestic servitude.
Prosecutors and police said they hoped the case of Safraz Ahmed, a 34-year-old mechanic from south London who abused, demeaned and taunted Sumara Iram over a two-year period, could see more potential victims come forward.
Ahmed subjected Iram to “physical and mental torture” after she came to the UK from Pakistan in late 2012 for an arranged marriage into which she entered willingly and with initially high hopes, Woolwich crown court was told.
He struck his wife, threw tins of cat food at her, sent streams of abusive and demeaning text messages, and once told her to jump in front of a vehicle or into a river, the judge, Christopher Hehir, was told.
In her victim imapct statement, Iram said: “Because the beatings happened regularly and for such small things I felt worthless. I was not allowed to do what I wanted to do, I was never allowed to step out of the house alone and I was not allowed to make friends, which means I was never allowed to socialise; I felt like their prisoner.
“I cooked, I cleaned, I washed, I ironed, looked after other people’s children and when things were not to the liking of the family I was punished by beatings. I felt that there was only one purpose of my life and that was to serve this family.”
Ahmed admitted enforced domestic servitude, for which he was jailed for two years, and assault causing actual bodily harm for breaking her nose, for which he received an eight-month term. The sentences will run concurrently, meaning he could be free within 12 months, less than half the time that Iram lived under his control.
“This is a ground-breaking case which demonstrates how far we have come in tackling modern-day slavery,” said Damaris Lakin, a lawyer for the Crown Prosecution Service. “We believe this is the first conviction in England and Wales of a husband for holding his wife in servitude.”
Lakin said prosecutors were “committed to working with the police and other partner agencies to bring the perpetrators of modern day slavery to justice and support victims to help them through the prosecution process and beyond in the hope that they can rebuild their lives”.
The Home Office’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Bernard Silverman, has estimated that in 2013 there were between 10,000 and 13,000 potential victims of modern slavery in the UK. This includes includes women forced into prostitution, domestic staff, and workers in fields, factories and fishing.
There are no specific estimates available of how many spouses are subjected to domestic servitude.
The judge described a seemingly paradoxical case in which the spouse arriving from Pakistan was well-educated and from a liberal background, but arrived in the UK to find her British husband say her only purpose was to care for him and his family. Iram, who has an MA in Islamic studies, cooked, cleaned and carried out other domestic duties in days often lasting from 5am to midnight.
Iram attended court to see her former husband jailed, sitting opposite the glass-walled dock where he sat. She glanced at him occasionally, but showed no emotion. Police have asked the media to not print images of her lest she face retribution.
Outlining the prosecution case, Caroline Haughey said the pair had married in Pakistan in 2006 when Iram, now 29, was a teenager. After a delay caused by her studies and visa issues she flew to London in late 2012, anticipating “a harmonious household where she was an equal”. Instead, Ahmed “told her he had married her so she could look after his mother and his home,” she said.
Haughey described the physical and mental abuse Ahmed meted out, which she said had left Iram with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The court was told her husband once said to her: “You are scared of being alone, but you are not scared of my beatings.” On another occasion, when she begged his forgiveness, Ahmed said he found her “disgusting”, and that she should jump in front of a car or into a river.
“It was an atmosphere of fear, constantly punctuated by violence,” Haughey said.
Ahmed had once hit his wife for, as he viewed it, failing to tend properly to his sister, the court heard. If the family told her to “stand on one leg” she should do it without question, she said.
Iram came to police attention in February 2014 after neighbours saw her outside the family home in just a dress and flip-flops, before her husband dragged her back inside by her hair.
Officers realised she had a broken nose and black eye and arrested Ahmed, but they released him the next day when Iram signed a document asking for him to be freed, saying she was not under pressure.
Following the conviction police accepted they could have removed Iram then, sparing her another 18 months with her husband.
“There are always lesson that the police can learn to improve their practices,” DS Pal Singh of the Metropolitan police said. “With the benefit of hindsight, this case could have perhaps been better placed for the victim if it had started in February 2014, when she first came to police attention.”
She eventually left the house in August 2015 after an incident where she tried to kill herself. She phoned the police, who persuaded her to go to a refuge.
Polly Harrar, the founder of the Sharan Project, which helps victims of forced marriages from south Asian communites, said the conviction suggested there were large numbers of victims living similarly restricted lives in the UK.
“This case will open the door to more prosecutions,” she said. “This woman was restricted in terms of going outside the home. She was brought here to be a slave in effect. This is just the tip of an iceberg. We have dealt with many similar cases. This case is really good for raising awareness of the problem.”