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Three 'slaves' rescued in London were shackled by 'invisible handcuffs,' police say

Police stand guard outside a block of residential apartments as house-to-house inquiries are carried out in South London on Nov. 23, 2013 concerning the recent discovery of three women held captive for 30 years.
Police stand guard outside a block of residential apartments as house-to-house inquiries are carried out in South London on Nov. 23, 2013 concerning the recent discovery of three women held captive for 30 years./

Three women who police say lived as slaves in a London house with their captors for 30 years were shackled by "invisible handcuffs," investigators said Saturday.

The “highly traumatized” women were rescued last month from the home in South London after calling Freedom Charity, an organization that advocates against forced marriage. After nearly a month of investigation, police arrested a man and a woman, both 67, on Thursday as part of an investigation into slavery and domestic servitude. Police said the suspects were of Indian and Tanzanian origin that came to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. 

"It is not as brutally obvious as women being physically restrained inside an address and not allowed to leave,” Commander Steve Rodhouse of the Metropolitan Police said in a statement. “What (investigators) … are trying to understand is what were the invisible handcuffs that were used to exert such a degree of control over these women.”

Police identified the rescued women as a 69-year-old Malaysian woman, a 57-year-old Irish woman and a 30-year-old British woman.

"Trying to label this investigation as domestic servitude or forced labor is far too simple," Rodhouse said. "What we have uncovered so far is a complicated and disturbing picture of emotional control over many years, brainwashing would be the most simplest term, yet that belittles the years of emotional abuse these victims have had to endure.

“We believe that two of the victims met the male suspect in London through a shared political ideology, and that they lived together at an address that you could effectively call a 'collective.’” Rodhouse said police believe to the outside world they may have appeared as a "normal" family. 

Rodhouse said that somehow the collective came to an end with the women continuing to live with the suspects.

"How this resulted in the women living in this way for over 30 years is what we are seeking to establish, but we believe emotional and physical abuse has been a feature of all the victims' lives,” he said. There is no indication that they were subjected to sexual abuse, another officer, Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland, said on Friday.

The women were freed on Oct. 25 but police only revealed the investigation after the arrests on Thursday. The suspects are currently released on bail, police said. 

It was unclear if the 30-year-old woman was born into captivity at the London house, but police said they believed she has lived with the suspects and the other victims her entire life and has had little contact with the outside world. The only official documentation police found for the woman was a birth certificate.

Hyland, of the Metropolitan Police's Human Trafficking Unit, said police do not currently believe the women were subjected to sexual  abuse, but were subjected to physical abuse in the home described as "beatings."

"These women have had traumatic and distributing experiences, which they have revealed to us,” Aneeta Prem, founder of Freedom Charity said in a statement. “What needs to happen now is that the three victims, who have begun a long process of recovery, are able to go through their rehabilitation undisturbed, without being identified."

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Rodhouse said the women were understandably “emotionally fragile and highly vulnerable” and that their identities were currently being protected by police.

"I have said from the start that our priority was the safety of the women who are the victims at the heart of this,” he said. “That does not just mean their physical safety but their emotional and mental well-being also.”

Pram said her organization has seen an “extraordinary rise” in calls to their helpline since the investigation was made public.

“We received five times as many calls in 24 hours as we normally do in one week and are needing to increase our resources to cope with this extra demand,” she said.

Reuters contributed to this report.