A Sheffield dessert bar owner has spoken of his three-year nightmare which saw him wrongly convicted and jailed for a sex attack on a child.
Rassam Ali served 18 months in prison and was beaten by other inmates who thought he was a paedophile after a botched police investigation failed to examine a raft of evidence.
Mr Ali was given a three-year jail sentence in March 2015 and served the full prison term before being let out on licence.
But his conviction has now been quashed after new evidence was brought to light and the CPS decided not to proceed with a retrial.
Mr Ali, aged 26 and originally from Yemen, says he has been ‘through hell’ and believes the police didn’t pursue lines of enquiry that could have cleared him as they saw him as ‘the perfect example’ of an ethnic minority man abusing a white girl to take to court in light of the Rotherham abuse scandal.
He finally cleared his name last week after the CPS decided not to proceed with a retrial after consulting with the complainant following his original conviction being quashed by the Court of Appeal in October.
“It has been the worst three years ever,” he said.
Police admitted in court they had not examined CCTV from the shop in Darnall on the night of the alleged incident or from council cameras outside.
They also failed to speak to neighbouring businesses about whether he had shut early that day as was alleged, and did not search Mr Ali’s home for the ‘silky striped underwear’ the girl said he had been wearing.
It was also admitted in court the force had also failed to check the complainant’s Facebook history which showed she attempted to add him as a friend despite her not telling police this in her interview.
But Mr Ali’s main concern is how the police dealt with one of the key witnesses in the case, another 14-year-old girl.
The complainant had claimed that friend had also been propositioned by Mr Ali and said on different occasions that he asked if they had boyfriends, whether they would come back to the shop when it was closed and asked both whether they would perform oral sex on him.
Despite the girl being both a key witness in the case and a potential victim, when officers originally spoke to her, no pocket notebook entry was made of the conversation.
Instead, when she said she did not wish to get involved, a card was just left with the 14-year-old girl telling her to get back in touch with the police if she did wish to say anything.
Following Mr Ali’s trial and the guilty verdict, the girl came forward to the defence team and said she wanted to tell the truth.
She provided them with a video interview in which lawyers for Mr Ali told the Court of Appeal undermined the complainant’s account in more than a dozen key areas.
This included her saying that Mr Ali was ‘always polite and never said anything to upset anyone’, that he ‘never spoke in sexual terms’ to them and that he had never asked either of them if they had boyfriends, to come back to the shop after it was closed or for oral sex.
This fresh evidence helped lead to Mr Ali’s conviction being overturned - but only after he had already served 18 months in prison.
Mr Ali said: “The complainant said I did it to her and her friend. If I did, why didn’t the police go and investigate with the other girl?
“All they did was ask if she knew anything about the case. She was 14 years old and after she said she didn’t want to get involved, they left her a card and said ‘Get in touch if you change your mind’.
“My defence team did the things the police should have done.”
In January 2014, police visited his shop on Staniforth Road in Darnall and told him the shocking news that one of his regular customers, a 14-year-old girl, had accused him of forcing her to perform a sex act.
He said a few months before the allegation was made, he had told the girl off over an incident in his store.
Mr Ali said there had been customers in the shop when officers told him they needed to speak with at the station ‘regarding sexual activity with a child’.
“When they said that, my heart burned. I was thinking ‘What the hell?’,” he said.
After first being bailed in January 2014, Mr Ali was eventually charged with sexual activity with a child in July 2014 and told his case would be going to court.
He believes the force viewed him as a good opportunity to show they were serious about tackling child sexual exploitation cases as the Jay report was released just a couple of weeks later and strongly criticised South Yorkshire Police when it revealed in August 2014 that 1,400 girls in neighbouring Rotherham had been abused, largely by Asian men, over a 16-year period.
He said: “I was the perfect example. They wanted to make me high-profile. They hyped up the case a lot, put it on Facebook. There was a lot of media interest.
“They put me in the newspapers the day before my plea appearance, then on the same day as my plea, then when the trial started and then after I got convicted.”
He said while juries are told to try cases on their merits and not read media reports, ‘a lot of people do read the news, it is already in your head’.
After a three-day trial and three days of jury deliberations in February 2015, during which one juror was allowed to be discharged, Mr Ali was found guilty of sexual activity with a child.
A few weeks later, he was handed a three-year prison sentence.
Speaking after the case, investigating officer Detective Constable Tracey Davies said Mr Ali had taken advantage of a vulnerable young girl and was now ‘rightly behind bars for his actions’.
Mr Ali said it was ‘the best feeling ever’ when his conviction was quashed at the Court of Appeal and the later announcement there would be no retrial.
“We went back for the court for the retrial and I thought, the worst has already happened, I have already gone through it. I went there with confidence and to tell the truth.”
He said when the prosecution barrister announced there would be no retrial, it was an enormous relief.
“You can’t bring the time I was in prison back. The worst thing was thinking all the hard work I did and the reputation I built was gone to dust.
“But that is what I’m trying to build back up.”
He said if it wasn’t for the hard work of his defence team, in particular Gul Nawaz Hussain and Steve Smith, he may never have cleared his name.
“When I got convicted that is when Nawaz put his foot down and said I’m going to do my best to get you out of prison and clear your name.
“He has done so much - he is more like a brother than a barrister.
“I don’t blame the girl, whether she wanted to hurt me or someone has set her up to do it, I don’t know.
“But I blame the police for taking it on without investigating properly. I tried my best to prove that innocence and there was evidence there.
“Whether to prove me innocent or guilty, they should have just looked at any of the cameras.
“Obviously I’m angry but the main thing is to clear my name. I want the police to accept they could have done a better job.
“I just want people to know the truth.”
A spokesman for South Yorkshire Police said: “South Yorkshire Police carried out an investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse following reports received in January 2014.
“The investigation, and evidence gathered as part of that investigation, was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service who brought a prosecution having determined there was a realistic prospect of conviction having applied the principles in the Code for Crown Prosecutors.
“Crucial to their decision is an assessment of the sufficiency of the evidence.
“If Mr Ali feels he wishes to make a formal complaint about this, he is able to do so directly to the force or through the Independent Police Complaints Commission.”
A spokesman for the CPS said: “This prosecution was initially brought because we believed that there was sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.
“The defendant was found guilty.
“However, on appeal a retrial was allowed.
“The complainant in this case does not wish to go through the trial process for a second time and so we decided not to pursue a retrial.”