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.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue