The Rochdale Red Cross worker who continues to haunt Sri Lanka

Travelling to Sri Lanka to try and find out about his constituent's murder, Simon Danczuk learned that when politicians are implicated, justice is kicked into the long grass.

 

It was in the basement of the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department where I found out how my constituent Khuram Shaikh had died in a cowardly attack on Christmas Day, 2011. Although it was midday, the windows were blacked out and we sat and listened as a group of senior police officers took us through the case. My stomach churned as we learned of the sickening and horrific details of the completely unprovoked attack that Khuram and his partner had been subjected to. Khuram, it would appear, had died trying unsuccessfully to stop his partner being violently abused by a group of drunken men who had burst into a private function. For a few moments we just sat in silence listening to heavy rain hammering the compound outside.  

I’d flown out with Khuram’s brother 24 hours earlier to try and get answers on how this much-loved Rochdale Red Cross Worker had been murdered while on holiday – and why progress on his case had ground to a halt. I had my suspicions on the latter, not least because the chief suspect in the case, a local politician called Sampath Chandra Pushpa, has close ties to the president.

Everyone we spoke to explained that when politicians are implicated, justice is kicked into the long grass. “Politicians here get away with everything, they’re completely untouchable,” was a view I heard time and again. It was hard not to conclude they were out of control. In the 48 hours I spent there, another two British tourists were hospitalized by an attack from a politician. I heard shocking stories of tourists from all over the world being subject to sexual attacks, and a local newspaper ran a cartoon referring to hundreds of Sri Lankan families having lost loved ones to “violence unleashed by political goons”. When I told a journalist that back in the UK a cabinet minister had just been jailed for lying about speeding points he burst out laughing and assumed I was joking.

In a country subject to increasing international scrutiny over human rights violations and its neglect of the rule of law, Khuram’s case has become hugely symbolic. I hadn’t anticipated the level of media interest we’d get out there – our visit made front page news - or the support we’d receive from Sri Lankan people. They are embarrassed and ashamed by Khuram’s murder and tired of cases involving politicians being delayed by endless excuses.

It took just a few weeks for the Government to impeach its chief justice earlier this year, an event that has hardened many people’s views on the politicization of Sri Lanka’s judiciary, but 15 months on from Khuram’s murder all eight suspects are out on bail, the politician has been allowed back into the ruling party and we’re no further to securing a trial date.

One date that is known, however, is the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, which takes place this November in Sri Lanka. Amid growing calls in the international community for the meeting to be moved to another country, Khuram’s case has caused a lot of Sri Lankan soul searching around the suitability of their country to host such an event.

“There is a need to provide strong examples of how the rule of law is still respected in Sri Lanka,” admitted an editorial in the Daily FT, adding that the strongest impact would be “fast tracking the process” in Khuram’s case.

“What is significant in this incident is that alleged irrational, irresponsible and immoral politicised killings have not only tarnished the country and its tourist industry,” added an editorial in the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror, but even affected the Commonwealth Summit. Instead of constantly condemning international conspirators in the West, it concluded, the Sri Lankan Government should know that “the worst enemies are under its own roof.”

The UK Government remains undecided on whether the Prime Minister will attend November’s Commonwealth summit in Colombo. David Miliband has said it would be “grotesque” of the Queen to attend. But I would go much further. If the Queen does attend, she could come face to face with the politician who’s suspected of brutally murdering the British tourist, Khuram Shaikh.

Such a spectacle would make a mockery of Commonwealth values and undermine over 60 years of progress.

Simon Danczuk is the Labour MP for Rochdale

Khuram Shaik, who died in an attack in Sri Lanka on Christmas Day 2011.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.