LONDON: British newspaper Mail on Sunday this week agreed to pay £180,000 to a former minicab licensing officer in the United Kingdom three years after publishing an article that falsely implicated him in facilitating a paedophile ring that was run by taxi drivers in Rochdale.

In 2017, the paper published a story which falsely claimed that a British-Pakistani man, Wajed Iqbal, was a “fixer” for taxi drivers “at a time when some local drivers were involved in raping underage girls as members of paedophile rings”. The article was written by a reporter by the name of David Rose, who is also at the centre of PML-N leader Shahbaz Sharif’s recently filed damages claim.

Iqbal went to court and accused the Mail on Sunday of involving him in the case because of his race. He said that following the article his “whole world crumbled” as he lost his job, was unable to see his children, and had to take anti-depressants. He was unable to find another job because, although there was no legal evidence of his involvement, media reports implied that he facilitated the gang.

“The colour of my skin was the selling point. Put that together with grooming gangs and then — boom,” he told The Guardian. “I feared for my life. I put CCTV all up around my house because you get lunatics. I had to come off social media completely. My son was studying at Preston and people would say: ‘Your dad’s dodgy, he’s part of this grooming thing’.”

In 2016, a UK court sentenced 10 men for committing sexual offences against a teenage girl in Rochdale. The group comprising men of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghan origins were sentenced for sexually abusing dozens of girls following an investigation centred on the town of Rochdale near Manchester.

Iqbal says Mail on Sunday picked on him because of his race

The court heard that the men groomed the girls with gifts and plied them with alcohol and drugs before forcing them to have sex with others. In 2018, a UK court deported three men to Pakistan after they were stripped of their British nationality following their conviction on charges of luring girls as young as 13 into sexual encounters using alcohol and drugs. They had acquired British citizenship by naturalisation.

Earlier this week, the government extradited a man who was convicted in the case and had escaped to Pakistan.

Reporter responds

In a series of tweets posted to his account on Saturday, the Mail on Sunday reporter spoke for the first time since Shahbaz filed a suit against his story in a court. The PML-N president had announced on Thursday that his lawyers had issued court proceedings in the Royal Courts of Justice and had served them on the publisher of the Mail on Sunday and the Mail Online for a story alleging that he siphoned off UK aid money and gave it to his family members.

Shahbaz is claiming damages as well as an injunction restraining the newspaper from publishing some ‘defamatory words’. He is also claiming that the paper publish the findings of the court summary and bear the cost of proceedings.

In his tweets, Rose said he “cannot comment yet” on the claims made by Shahbaz but, in an oblique reference to Iqbal’s remarks, said he was not motivated by anti-Muslim or anti-Pakistan racism.

“I’ve spent much of my career exposing and fighting racism, and I stand by that record. If you say I’m a racist, you’d better be ready to prove it,” he wrote.

He said he first visited Pakistan when he was 18, in 1978. “Islamabad was not much more than a village — I think it had one market. I loved the country and its people then, and I love them now — which is why I care about them, and have returned many times,” he said.

He then proceeded to heap praise on prime minister’s adviser Shahzad Akbar — who Shahbaz accuses of being behind the allegedly defamatory story in the Mail on Sunday. “...That’s how I got to know Shazad Akbar, long before he worked with Imran Khan. He was and is a warrior for human rights, and I’m proud I was able to stand shoulder to shoulder with him in some of the battles he fought — with courage and dignity.”

Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2020