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Trio's ordeal that casts light on the netherworld of modern slavery

By Cahal Milmo, Emily Dugan and Paul Peachey

The three women thought to have been held as slaves for more than 30 years were beaten and brainwashed into a life of servitude but presented to the outside world as a "normal family", police said yesterday.

Officers described the case as a "complicated and disturbing picture of emotional control" and have admitted that they may have come into contact with the women during their lives in captivity. One minister yesterday warned that there could be thousands of people held in similar conditions.

As almost 40 officers try to determine what "invisible handcuffs" were used to confine the women to the house in south London until their release last month, Scotland Yard confirmed that the married couple suspected of holding them had been arrested in the 1970s.

The couple, both 67, were released on police bail early yesterday but are not to return to the otherwise "unremarkable" house in Lambeth.

Detectives said that more than 55 bags of evidence, containing more than 2,500 items, had been taken away from the house for investigation.

Experts said that the case – which could be Britain's most enduring incidence of modern-day slavery – represents just a small part of a hidden netherworld that police are ill-equipped to deal with.

Aneeta Prem, the founder of Freedom Charity which facilitated the rescue of the women, said her group had been "inundated" with calls since the case came to light, while James Brokenshire, a Home Office minister, said that there could be as many as 6,000 people being held as slaves in Britain.

Describing the duress that the women were apparently under while in captivity, Commander Steve Rodhouse, head of Scotland Yard's specialist crime directorate, said: "Brainwashing would be the simplest term, yet that belittles the years of emotional abuse these victims have had to endure. To the outside world this may have appeared to be a 'normal' family. Over the course of many decades the people at the heart of this investigation... will probably have come into contact with public services, including our own."

One of the few details that police were prepared to release was that the two suspects, who are not British citizens, have been in the UK for many decades and were arrested in the 1970s. Why they were held, or whether they faced charges at that time, was not divulged.

The three women released from the house – a 69-year-old Malaysian, a 57-year-old Irish woman and a 30-year-old Briton who is believed to have spent her entire life in servitude – were rescued on October 25 after a week of clandestine conversations with welfare workers. It's believed that the women were only allowed to leave the house to put out washing or go shopping under the close supervision of one of the couple.

All 37 officers in the Yard's human trafficking unit are now working on the case.

The couple have also been detained on suspicion of immigration offences and assault. Their passports have been confiscated.

The rescued women have told medics that they suffered sustained physical abuse – described as "beatings" – from their captors". No allegations have been made of a sexual nature.

Experts said the case highlights a wider problem. A report published in June by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group found "countless" examples of slavery where the police "did not recognise the crime at all".

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