Rosie Cowan, Guardian (London), June 22
A surge in extortion rackets organised by foreign gangs has substantially increased the number of kidnappings in the capital, with the average now running at almost one a day.
The rate of kidnappings has risen sharply in the past seven or eight years. Half of all kidnappers and victims in the capital are foreign nationals, usually from the same ethnic group. Detective Chief Superintendent Sharon Kerr, who heads Scotland Yard’s serious and organised crime unit, said the growing number of foreign criminal networks carrying out kidnaps in the city led to increasingly complex and high risk situations.
“They are bringing their criminal enterprises with them and their different methodologies,” she said. It was vital to gain immigrant communities’ trust to help combat gangsters in their midst.
A total of 358 kidnaps were reported in London last year, according to figures released by the Metropolitan police yesterday. The Met’s specialist kidnap unit — the only one in the UK — works on about 50-80 “live” kidnaps a year. There have been 31 cases this year, 55 last year, 85 in 2003 and 79 in 2002.
In the other 300 or so cases, police are only notified after a ransom has been paid and the victim freed, and the true figure could be much higher, as many underworld-linked crimes go unreported.
The involvement of so many foreign nationals in kidnaps means the Met often works with police forces in several different jurisdictions. For example, someone might be kidnapped in London and a ransom demand made in Pakistan.
Kidnapping is particularly prevalent in the Chinese, Afro-Caribbean, south Asian and eastern European communities, where extreme violence and torture is common, often over relatively small amounts of money. Last year, a group of Lithuanian men seized a young Lithuanian after overhearing his accent in the pub. They beat him senseless and then scrolled down the numbers in his mobile phone, calling friends and relatives to demand £200. Police rescued the critically injured victim, who spent weeks on a life support machine but eventually recovered.
So far, the Met kidnap unit, set up in 2001, has had a 100% success rate in recovering people alive. Skilled negotiators work round the clock to try to secure victims’ safe release. In as many as 80% of cases, armed officers storm the kidnappers’ stronghold and rescue the victim. But bringing the kidnappers to justice is difficult, often because victims are too frightened to testify. The prosecution rate for kidnap is just 20%, although many perpetrators are jailed for related offences.
However, Sir Ian Blair, the Scotland Yard commissioner, said yesterday the Met is talking to the Home Office and Crown Prosecution Service to try to get more kidnap cases to court without the victims having to give evidence, in line with recent policy changes on domestic violence.
Most kidnaps are crime-related — 29% are clearly linked to drugs, and another 36% are motivated by drugs or other crime. But the vast majority of victims are usually innocent parties. For instance, a drug supplier may get his gang of “enforcers” to seize the younger brother of a drug dealer who owes him money.
Another 19% of kidnaps the Met deals with involve human trafficking, often of young east European or Asian women brought into the country illegally and then sold on as sex slaves. In some cases, money is extorted from their families in China, eastern Europe or elsewhere.
Supt Kerr said ransom demands varied wildly, from a few hundred pounds to several hundred thousand. There are a small, but growing, number of kidnaps of wealthy people, purely for financial gain. Last year, a gang seized an Asian businessman and demanded a £500,000 ransom. Police found him, bound and gagged, in the back of a Transit van.
Kidnaps of children are relatively rare, but three men and a woman were jailed last month for snatching an 11-year-old boy on his way home from school in west London in March last year and demanding a £40,000 ransom. The boy, held for 26 hours, was freed by armed police.
The Met kidnap unit is not involved in hostage-taking or sieges, but its negotiators help the Foreign Office where British citizens are taken hostage abroad, such as the seizure of Ken Bigley in Iraq.
Boy threatened with death among three victims saved by the police
A group of African-Caribbeans seized another African-Caribbean man, in his mid-20s, at gunpoint in east London on Christmas Eve, 2003, and demanded £10,000-£15,000 from his family. The young man, who cannot be named, is believed to have owed them money for drugs.
The kidnappers tortured the victim, pistol whipping him and burned his back with a steam iron. Police launched a covert operation, rescuing the victim and arresting the perpetrators. But they were released without charge when the victim and his family refused to give evidence.
A man and a woman pulled up in a car beside an 11-year-old boy walking home from school in Southall, west London, to ask directions. They pulled the boy into the car, took him to a nearby house and contacted his family to demand £40,000.
The boy was threatened with death and forced to plead down the phone with his father for the money. He was kept in a squalid room strewn with rotting rubbish for 26 hours. He was freed when police arrested one of the kidnappers who revealed where the boy was being held. Although physically unharmed, he still suffers panic attacks and nightmares.
Last month three men, Ravideep Singh Babu, 24, 30-year-old Amerjit Singh Dhariwar, 30, and Gurnham Singh Dhanoa, 22, and a 20-year-old woman, Ayisha Zahoor Choudrey, were jailed for kidnap, false imprisonment and blackmail.
Just before midnight on February 20 last year the family of a wealthy 50-year-old Asian businessman received a phone call saying he had been kidnapped and demanding £500,000 for his release.
The victim was grabbed as he parked his car in East Ham, east London, and bundled into the back of a Range Rover. He was bound and gagged, transferred to a Transit van and taken to an industrial estate in Essex. His wrists and ankles were tied up with tape, his arms pinned to his body and tape put over his eyes and mouth.
Police rescued him, and Danny Gibney, 31, from Essex, was arrested at the scene and later jailed for seven years for kidnap and false imprisonment.