In London ‘Slaves’ Case, 3 Women Isolated Under a Maoist Guru’s Sway

30.11.2013 14:00

LONDON — They have become known
as the “Brixton slaves,” three women
who say they were held against their
will for 30 years in a South London
When a man and his wife were
arrested last week, some wondered
briefly whether this was Britain’s Ariel
Castro moment, recalling the man who
imprisoned three women in his
Cleveland home for a decade. Then
speculation quickly turned to forced
marriage and domestic slavery.
But the tale that has emerged is
stranger still. It involves a Maoist guru
who promised followers liberation by
the Chinese Army, a cricket-playing
Welshwoman who died after plunging
out of a third-floor bathroom window,
and parents trying to kidnap their own
Two of the women who called a charity
hotline on Oct. 18 and left the home of
the couple they identified as their
captors a week later had actually met
the couple in a far-left splinter group
and moved into a “collective” with
them in the 1970s. The two women
have been identified in the British news
media as Aisha Wahab, 69, from
Malaysia, and Josephine Herivel, 57,
from Northern Ireland, both from a
middle-class background and college
educated. The third woman, a 30-year-
old Briton identified as Rosie Davies,
appears to have been born into the
collective and may never have gone to
school, investigators said.
The picture of the three women’s lives
that is gradually emerging from
accounts by relatives of former
collective members, neighbors, charity
workers and the police is one of an
isolated existence in a small sectlike
group tightly controlled by a 5-foot-4
man named Aravindan Balakrishnan,
now 73.
Mr. Balakrishnan — or Comrade Bala,
as he was known — arrived in Britain
from Singapore in the 1960s and ran a
Maoist center on a street corner in the
Brixton district of South London with
his Tanzanian wife, Chanda. He was
expelled from the leadership of a small
Maoist group, the Communist Party of
England (Marxist-Leninist), for
“splittist activities.” He reportedly
mocked the group as the Communist
Party of Elizabeth (Most-Loyal) and
went on to found the even smaller
Workers’ Institute of Marxism-
Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, with
about two dozen members who wore
Mao lapel badges.
Mr. Balakrishnan had the charisma of
a “guru,” said Steve Rayner, an Oxford
professor who in 1979 wrote his Ph.D.
thesis on leftist groups in Britain and
studied the Workers’ Institute. “He
clearly held a strong grip over the
Ms. Wahab, who had come to Britain
with her Malaysian fiancé, was so
smitten with Mr. Balakrishnan that she
threw her engagement ring into the
Thames, according to her sister Kamar
Mautum, who was interviewed by The
Daily Telegraph.
In 1978, after an attack on a police
officer, the authorities raided the
institute’s Mao Memorial Center and
arrested 14 members, including Mr.
Balakrishnan and his wife. The center
subsequently closed, and the collective
broke up, but a small group of people
stayed with the couple, including Ms.
Wahab and Ms. Herivel, investigators
So far, almost nothing is known about
life inside half a dozen properties the
group occupied over 30 years, all in
southeast London. The police only this
week started questioning the three
women, who have been cared for by
trauma experts in an unidentified
location since October. But fragments
of the experience of a fourth woman —
another former collective member,
who appears to be the mother of the
youngest woman — offer a glimpse.
Sian Davies, an avid cricketer from
rural Wales, moved into the collective
while studying at the London School of
Economics in the 1970s, according to
her cousin Eleri Morgan. Ms. Davies
died in 1997, seven months after
falling out of the bathroom window on
Dec. 24.
As soon as she joined Mr.
Balakrishnan’s group, Ms. Davies cut
off almost all contact with her family,
said Ms. Morgan, a retired
schoolteacher in London. The two grew
up together, and Ms. Morgan often saw
Ms. Davies after both moved to London
in the mid-1970s.
“Almost from one day to the next, she
vanished and her phone stopped
working,” Ms. Morgan said in a
telephone interview. The only time Ms.
Davies visited her mother, one day in
the late 1980s, she was accompanied by
two group members. “They never left
her alone with her mother,” Ms.
Morgan said.
Ms. Davies’s mother, desperate to track
down her only daughter, at one point
hired a private investigator. But the
group, which relocated frequently,
appeared to always be one step ahead.
Ms. Davies’s boyfriend, Martin, also a
member of the group, had been
“snatched” and taken home by a man
his parents had hired, Ms. Morgan
Even when Ms. Davies was hospitalized
for seven months for spinal injuries
after her fall, the group did not inform
her family, Ms. Morgan said. “My
auntie only found out after Sian had
died and police came to tell her,” she
Ms. Morgan went to the hospital to
identify her cousin’s body and picked
up a small bag of belongings. News
reports say that Ms. Davies died with
only five pounds to her name, having
transferred an inheritance to the
At a hearing, when a judicial inquiry
into Ms. Davies’s death ended with an
“open verdict” unable to determine its
circumstances, Ms. Morgan came face
to face with Mr. Balakrishnan. “I
thought, what a weedy little man,” she
said. “He was short, toothless — he had
no upper teeth — and wore thick glasses
that came down on his nose. I couldn’t
understand how anyone could follow
this man.”
But academics who study group
dynamics say the Brixton collective
may have represented a classic case of
sectarian behavior.
“This reminds me quite a lot of the
cases we are working on,” said
Amanda van Eck, a researcher at the
London School of Economics who
studies small religious groups.
“Especially in very small underground
groups, you can have very coercive
environments. If there is no website,
no P.O. box, no connection with the
outside world for a very long time, you
tend to get some very problematic
interpersonal relations.”
The police have said the women had
“controlled freedom.” They were seen
shopping at a nearby supermarket, and
the youngest wrote love letters to a
neighbor, The Guardian reported,
albeit saying that she felt “trapped like
a fly in a spider’s web.”
Slavery, Ms. van Eck said, “is probably
not a helpful term here.”
“In the end,” she said, “they walked out
of the door.”