A takeaway owner has been jailed for 15 years for attempting to recruit girls as young as 12 into prostitution and paying other teenagers for sex in a case which was described as "cold, clinical exploitation of the desperate and the vulnerable".
Azad Miah, 44, a married father of four children, was found guilty at Carlisle crown court of running a brothel from his business, inciting girls aged between 12 and 16 to prostitute. He was also convicted of paying two teenagers for sex.
The owner of the Spice of India restaurant, now under new management, denied all the charges relating to the five victims.
The court heard that a 12-year-old victim complained to police on three occasions in 2008 about Miah persistently harassing her, but it was three years before he was arrested. She eventually gave up complaining as nothing was done.
When the victim was interviewed following his arrest, she was asked by police if she knew why she was being questioned, and replied: "Because of something that happened three years ago and now you have finally decided to do something about it."
The prosecution described the abuse as "cold, clinical exploitation of the desperate and the vulnerable". Miah told one of his victims: "In my country it doesn't matter about age."
The court heard that Miah, a Bangladeshi national, regarded the girls as "fresh meat" and asked prostitutes at the brothel to find young girls, whom he bombarded with hundreds of text messages promising to give them drugs, alcohol and money in return for sex.
Sentencing him to a total of 15 years on Tuesday, Judge Peter Hughes said: "This case reveals the seedier side of life in our town and city centres and what can happen to vulnerable and immature girls.
"There are lessons from this case for us all to learn. There are lessons for parents to learn whose responsibility it is to protect their children. There are lessons for those responsible for safeguarding vulnerable children from deprived backgrounds and without appropriate parental care and guidance."
Hughes said there were lessons for the police "to be ever vigilant to detect signs of the possible exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people and to take seriously what they say ? however chaotic and difficult their lives may be".
The judge said a sad feature of the case was that there were a number of occasions when witnesses complained to police or community support officers about the defendant pestering them but their complaints were not taken further. "As a result opportunities were missed," he added. Hughes said the investigation owed much to the dedication and determination of one officer to trace the witnesses and make it possible for them to feel they could come forward.
He told Miah that his conduct "corrodes the foundations of decency and respect by which all right-thinking people live their lives". He said Miah had shown a total and selfish disregard for the victims' welfare.
One of the victims was encouraged to have sex with Miah as she was desperate for money when she was 15. The other, who was a heroin user, had a two-year sexual relationship with him which began when she was 15.
Tim Evans, prosecuting, told the court: "The defendant sought to persuade a variety of young girls to have sex with him for money, or the equivalent of money, via the provision of drugs and drink. The attempted persuasion was persistent. He would hound young girls for periods of weeks or months, face to face and over the phone.
"More worryingly he would stalk some of them, following them home in particular."
During police interviews, Miah admitted being addicted to sex but said the allegations had been concocted by "druggists" who were upset when he stopped giving them food and money.
Miah targeted the girls because he thought they would be less likely to be believed than the respectable businessman he purported to be, the court heard.
He was jailed for nine years for four counts of paying for the sexual services of a child between 2006 and 2009, one of keeping a brothel between 2005 and 2011 and five years for the charges of inciting child prostitution. He was cleared of child prostitution charges relating to two other girls.
Detective Constable Christy Robertson, who interviewed Miah, said he showed "horrendous" contempt for his victims, whom he targeted because of their vulnerable and chaotic backgrounds.
She said: "Even in their worst state of addiction they knew this wasn't right, and they knew this was their way of hopefully putting a stop to what was happening and protecting the next generation of girls."