26 Nov 2013

London 'slavery' case: suspect was communist activist in 1970s

Aravindan Balakrishnan, aka Comrade Bala, ran separatist party-cum-commune from bookshop in Brixton, south London

Peckford Place in Brixton, where Aravindan and Chanda Balakrishnan were arrested on suspicion of holding three woman captive. Photograph: Guy Corbishley/Demotix/Corbis

The 73-year-old man arrested on suspicion of holding three women captive in a south London flat for 30 years is a one-time Maoist activist who was well known within far-left circles in London during the mid- and late 1970s as the leader of a separatist party-cum-commune.

Aravindan Balakrishnan, known as Comrade Bala, had been a senior member of the Communist party of England (Marxist-Leninist) and a member of the party's central committee‚ but according to a history of the movement he split from the Maoist party in 1974.

His new organisation, described in one account as being "characterised by the ultra-left posturing and Mao worship", was called the Workers' Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. But the group is not thought to have been active since the 1970s ‚ before one of the women, now aged 30, was born.

Local sources said the woman arrested last week was his wife Chanda Balakrishnan, aged 67, a fellow activist, known during her party days as Comrade Chanda. They were both arrested last week on suspicion of holding three woman captive in a cult-type arrangement at a series of addresses in south London, including most recently at Peckford Place in Brixton. Both have since been released on police bail.

The women have been described by police as a 69-year-old Malaysian, a 57-year-old Irishwoman and a 30-year-old Briton, believed to be the daughter of the Irishwoman and Aravindan Balakrishnan. On Monday night, police issued a clarification confirming that the man arrested is 73, not 67 as previously claimed.

Balakrishnan, who came to the UK from Malaysia, was formally expelled from the Communist party of England, which also no longer exists, due to "conspiratorial and splittist activities", according to a party statement of the time. He formed his own group, and in 1976 opened a bookshop, community centre and commune in Acre Lane, Brixton, at the time still a deprived area. The group's own manifesto described itself as multiracial, with women taking a leading role.

While some reports say the organisation was based as a squat, reports from the time say Balakrishnan's group took out a long lease on the building. The handful of business owners on the road who remember the centre say it was always busy, with large numbers of young people coming in and out of the large, three-storey Victorian corner property at all hours.

Balakrishnan's beliefs, niche even among the ultra-left groups of the time, styled his group as a direct component of Maoist China, calling on the Red army to come to south London to liberate working people. Members carried portraits of Mao.

The Acre Lane building was also run in part as a shrine and memorial to the Chinese communist leader, who died that year.

The manifesto from the group, reproduced on the internet, described it as "a workers' centre, library and bookshop", adding: "Thousands of people, in particular the poorer working people in the area, began to visit and use the centre. Already two years before the centre was established our comrades had begun to boldly arouse the people of Brixton with the proletarian revolutionary line of beloved Chairman Mao."

The group's beliefs were regularly mocked in the diary column of the Times newspaper, bringing speculation that it became the part-model for the Tooting Popular Front, the ludicrous political movement set up by Robert Lindsay in Citizen Smith, a BBC sitcom that began broadcasting in 1977.

According to another history of far-left groups in the period, the Acre Lane community was broken up in March 1978 following a police raid. A total of 14 people were arrested, including six female commune members, according to reports from the time. Balakrishnan was among those held, along with his wife, referred to in reports only as Comrade Chanda.

The owner of a DIY shop adjoining the former Maoist centre‚ now an Algerian restaurant‚ said his father used to own the building in question, but sold it shortly before Balakrishnan's commune opened in 1976. The shop owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was told Balakrishnan's group took out a long lease on the building, which would have cost a significant sum of money, and there was speculation as to how they raised the money.Police car in Peckford Place in Brixton where the women were allegedly held. Photograph: Velar Grant/ Velar Grant/Demotix/Corbis

The man said: "There was always lots of young people going in and out of the building, but they were never any trouble."

Rev Bob Nind, who was the vicar of St Matthew's church in Brixton and a well-known community figure at the time, said he went to the Maoist group's centre once, and also knew of them by reputation. "The place itself didn't see that remarkable. It mainly looked like a bookshop," he told the Guardian. "There were a lot of young people around, including a lot of women. There was a lot of literature connected to Mao."

Nind said that by reputation, Balkrishnan's group was known as the most far-left even among the many Marxist-linked groups in the area at the time. "There were a lot of leftwing groups active. I remember very well that at the 1978 byelection after Marcus Lipton died, there were 10 candidates and five were to the left of Labour. But even among these, the people from Acre Lane were known as being particularly doctrinaire, and quite centralist."

Nind said he never met Balakrishnan but knew of "Comrade Bala", and was told he was considered a "dominant force" within his organisation.

After leaving the Acre Lane centre it seems the couple lived at more than a dozen addresses around south London, most lately Peckford Place, in Angell Town, north of Brixton. One of the longer-used properties is believed to be a Victorian house in Herne Hill, adjoining Brixton. Electoral records show a Chanda Balakrishnan living at the address from 1998 to 2004, though Aravindan Balakrishnan is not listed.

Prof Steve Rayner, now head of Oxford University's institute for science, innovation and society, studied Balakrishnan's group in the late 1970s, and noted the leader's "superior ability to manipulate" other members, despite the supposed non-hierarchical structure. Rayner's report made it clear the group had elements of a cult, calling it the "clearest case of far-left millenarianism which I have encountered".

The group had about 25 members, who in 1977 "confidently predicted" they would be liberated by the Red army by the end of the year, the report said. In all, 13 people lived at the Acre Lane centre, with a few having outside jobs but handing all their earnings to the group. The centre's location was chosen because it was seen as "the worst place in the world", Rayner's report said.

Despite very regular meetings, there was very little apparent debate and most of the discussion seemed to be people parroting Mao texts, he wrote, adding: "The members are required to witness their beliefs at all times. They talk of little else and are rarely to be seen without their prominent Mao badges."

Speaking on Monday, Rayner recounted the group was tiny and tight-knit, and "clearly under the spell of their leader, 'Comrade' Balakrishnan".

He added: "Their membership was overwhelmingly overseas in origin. Most were foreign students who seemed to have difficulty adjusting to life in the UK. They refused to recognise the legitimacy of the state and maintained a hostile attitude towards the establishment and towards the rest of the far-left in Britain at that time. Their ideology was profoundly detached from reality."

In a statement Lambeth Council said: "Lambeth Council worked closely with the police in the weeks leading up to the three women leaving the house and continues to do everything to assist with the police investigation.

"This is an extremely complex case involving a number of individuals going back decades. It is too early at this stage to provide the detail of any contact we may have had with them.

"Lambeth is committed to openness and transparency and we will provide further information in due course.However we do not want to prejudice the ongoing police investigation. Right now the security, confidentiality and well-being of those involved is paramount."

London slaves' captors linked to 13 addresses

Apartment in Brixton, south London is only one piece in a complex jigsaw that police are trying to piece together

Metropolitan police officers at the home in Peckworth Place, Lambeth, south London where three women were held as slaves. Photograph: Johnny Armstead/Demotix/Corbis

Police have identified 13 addresses in London linked to the couple suspected of holding three women as prisoners for at least 30 years in a cult-type arrangement dominated by physical and mental abuse.

The number of properties associated with the couple, who are both aged 67, suggests the victims were moved around several times over the past three decades.

The police continued to carry out house-to-house inquiries on Sunday at the latest address where the "family" lived – a ground-floor flat in Peckford Place, Angell Town, Brixton, south London, owned by Lambeth council.

That flat is only one piece in a complex jigsaw that the police are trying to piece together over a 30-year period. Many of these locations may have been home to the women – two of whom joined the male suspect 30 years ago because they followed the same ideology.

The police have likened the social setup in which they lived to a collective, and other sources have described the extreme emotional control which held the women within the household as "cult-like".

The two suspects arrested over the discovery are believed to have also been arrested several times in the 1970s, linked to their roles in a far-left political movement based in Brixton.

The Metropolitan police said on Sunday that it had not received any contact from neighbours or members of the public raising concerns about the suspects, and the women living with them. But the police have admitted they had originally arrested the suspects, who are of Indian and Tanzanian descent, in the 1970s.

The three women allegedly kept as slaves are a 69-year-old Malaysian, a 57-year-old Irish woman and a 30-year-old Briton. Police confirmed the youngest woman – whom sources suggest is the Irish woman's daughter – has a birth certificate.

There is also a suggestion that the police and social services were contacted by a member of the public 15 years ago to alert them to the fact the youngest woman was not attending school.

Lambeth social services have had contact with the family, it is understood. But there is a suggestion that the authorities might have been prevented from taking any action because the victims vetoed it.

An impassioned letter to a neighbour, written by the youngest woman in the apartment where the family lived, revealed her desperate situation. The woman, who is aged 30 and is understood to have been born within the collective, told her neighbour in one letter that she felt "like a fly trapped in a spider's web".

The woman was said to have become infatuated with the neighbour, Marius Feneck, 26. Feneck's partner claimed the woman sent him more than 500 letters over seven years, some scented and with kisses on them. According to reports, she wrote in one letter: "They imprisoned me here, locking all the doors and windows." The letter also claims that she suffers "unspeakable torment" and repeatedly criticises her alleged captors "who dare to call themselves my 'relatives'".

More than 30 police officers are now dedicated to what Commander Steve Rodhouse has said is a "painstaking" investigation which centres on how they met and what happened between them. "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'," he said.

"Somehow that collective came to an end and the women ended up continuing to live with the suspects. 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. 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. I will not give any further information about it."

The suspects are on police bail. They are suspected of keeping the women in a state of domestic servitude, of false imprisonment and carrying out physical violence towards them. Police said that emotional and physical abuse appeared to have been a feature of all the victims' lives.

The three women were helped to escape from the apartment by charity workers and police on 25 October.They had allegedly been held against their will since the eldest two first joined what police called "a collective", organised around a shared political ideology, more than 30 years ago.
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