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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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.