A Christmas Day murder and one family's international fight for justice
When a Red Cross worker from Rochdale was killed in Sri Lanka, his family went to their local MP for help. This is the inside story of what happened next
By Matt Baker
It was late on Friday, rain was drumming on the window and I was just about to log off for the night when the phone rang. I hesitated for a few seconds before picking up.
When you work for an MP, evening calls are an occupational hazard. And in Rochdale, I’d learned to expect anything. A constituent stranded in Syria, businesses that had been flooded or victims of crime who urgently needed rehousing. But it wasn’t a constituent this time. It was the Foreign Office Minister.
“Hello,” came a soft Mancunian accent. “It’s Alistair Burt. We have some news on Khuram Shaikh’s case.” During those few minutes, I didn’t say much but listened carefully. When I put down the phone the rain had stopped. And I knew we’d reached a turning point.
Khuram was a 32-year-old from Milnrow who worked for the International Red Cross and was murdered in Sri Lanka over Christmas in 2011. At a Christmas party, he had spotted a member of staff at his hotel being beaten up by a group of men and did what people trained in conflict resolution do instinctively — step in to help. In doing so, he saved the man’s life but at a terrible cost. The men turned on him instead, stabbing him multiple times before unloading a gun on him.
Khuram had been on holiday at the time of his death because his job demanded he recharge his batteries. “The irony is that he was required to take regular holidays to get away from war-torn environments and try and feel some sense of normality — and that's what he was doing when he was murdered,” his brother Nasser explains. He remembers his brother as kind, funny and deeply supportive of the people in his life. Khuram was also someone who “lit up a room wherever he went with his infectious charisma,” Nasser once told a journalist.
When the family came to Rochdale’s then MP Simon Danczuk for help, I was working as an advisor in Simon’s office.
As we set about trying to piece together what happened, the names of the suspects were released by the Sri Lankan media. Among the eight men arrested was a local politician, Sampath Vidanapathirana, who had close ties to the President. Some of the reports showed a picture of Sampath standing next to President Rajapaksa. It was a chilling image and we immediately knew the odds were heavily stacked against this case ever going to trial.
But the family’s grief and love for Khuram had genuinely moved me and we felt we owed it to them to give it our best shot. So, we established a small campaign team and got to work. At night I would flick through Khuram’s file, adding another response to one of the numerous letters we sent to ministers or studying pictures of him to try and glean some insight into what kind of person he was.
At that point, I had only heard Khuram’s family’s account of him. I knew he worked in some of the most dangerous parts of the world and was passionate about humanitarian aid. I knew he had spent time in North Korea, Ethiopia and Gaza, fitting prosthetic limbs to people affected by conflict, and was already planning his next assignment to Cambodia.
It was only when I started reaching out to Khuram’s colleagues that I realised how highly he was regarded. A plaque was unveiled in memory of him at the hospital in Dublin where he used to work and a new clinic was named after him at the University of Salford where he studied prosthetics and orthotics. Colleagues across the globe paid tributes to a remarkable young man helping people who’d lost limbs from bombs, landmines and diseases. In Gaza, where he led the only functioning prosthetics and orthopaedic centre in the Gaza Strip, the Mayor launched a new rehabilitation room in honour of him.
It was hard to think of a more inspiring example of someone committed to public service and helping others. Surely, I thought, every media outlet in Britain would want to get behind this inspiring young Brit and demand Sri Lanka brings his killers to justice?
I had many conversations with journalists — and, while some were receptive and covered the story well, others would not entertain the idea of covering a story about a young British Asian from Rochdale. The town’s street grooming scandal was on everyone’s minds, and I could feel it warping the perspectives of news desks I was trying to appeal to.
Dan Hewitt, who works for ITV News, deserves to be singled out for praise. He immediately got the story and came to my house one afternoon to pick up every bit of footage I’d recorded from our visit to Sri Lanka. He followed the story from the beginning to the end and said he saw Khuram as someone ITV’s viewers would strongly identify with.
What coverage we did achieve, though, helped keep Khuram on the radar of politicians. But we got far more coverage in Sri Lanka and the courage of their journalists shamed large parts of our media, especially considering the dangers that reporters there face. I remember speaking to one journalist who told me how his editor had been shot dead for accusing Rajapaksa’s government of corruption. In those circumstances, reporting for years on a story about a murder committed by a politician who was friends with the son of the president showed real bravery.
Khuram became a cause celebre in Sri Lanka and while journalists told us we had no chance of securing justice because the President was bound to protect a politician from his party, we simply had to believe otherwise.
If there’s one thing I’d learned from politics it’s that every campaign needs to understand the landscape on which it operates — and, frankly, we didn’t understand the reality of Sri Lanka at all. Politics there was, to put it mildly, a very different world. In Westminster, the Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne had been jailed over speeding points. Yet in Sri Lanka, a politician who had seemingly committed murder in front of numerous witnesses was released on bail and allowed to assume his work as a Town Council leader in Tangalle. He wasn’t even suspended from his party.
The political reality of Sri Lanka was anathema to me. I remember the BBC correspondent for Sri Lanka, Charles Havilland, explaining to me that in 2010, the politician who killed Khuram had been arrested for killing an elderly woman, but had been released when police presented reports that he was mentally ill. Havilland also told me about politicians tying people up to trees, and about a shoot-out between rival politicians. Brazen corruption was accepted as normal.
Something else Havilland had mentioned was that when Khuram had been killed, he had received a call from the Chairman of Sri Lanka tourism urging him to play the murder down because it would be damaging to tourism. This was extremely important to Sri Lanka, as was the fact that in 2013 the country was due to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo where President Rajapaksa would welcome dignitaries from across the Commonwealth and present himself as a world leader.
So, our campaign switched to focus solely on two things: doing everything we could to damage Sri Lankan tourism and making sure that CHOGM was overshadowed by Sri Lanka’s terrible human rights record, with Khuram’s case being mentioned at every opportunity.
We accused British Airways of being irresponsible and unethical for naming Sri Lanka as their number one travel choice in 2013, highlighting Khuram’s case and also the fact that in 2012 there had been 700 child rapes there.
We challenged the idea of Sri Lanka as an idyllic holiday destination at every opportunity and lobbied MPs, ministers and Sri Lanka’s High Commission. Questions were asked in the House of Commons and we flew to Sri Lanka to conduct an exhausting round of meetings with politicians, police, civil servants, the British High Commission and journalists.
Some of these meetings were painfully awkward. I can still remember frustrations boiling over when the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice told us it could take 10 years before the case came to trial. She then went on to say they could not take foreign witness statements for the case, of which we knew there were many, because it was too difficult to get them to travel to Sri Lanka.
And they could not use video evidence because they didn’t have such sophisticated technology. We knew the real reason was that they wanted to rely on local witnesses who would be terrified to testify for fear of being killed. At the end of the day, we met journalists at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel and discussed the case until the early hours.
By now we’d lobbied Prince Charles who had agreed to raise the case at CHOGM and we told a press conference in Colombo that the Queen was unlikely to attend this year’s biennial conference for the first time in forty years. As it happened, she didn’t and Prince Charles stepped into her role. The Canadian Prime Minister and the Indian Prime Minister said they would boycott CHOGM, and Sri Lanka was now very much under the spotlight over human rights.
And so to that call from Alistair Burt. He told me that David Cameron was ready to challenge President Rajapaksa over Khuram’s death. When the summit began Rajapaksa was a diminished figure and David Cameron wrote to us to say he had raised the case very (he underlined the word) directly with the Sri Lankan President.
Soon after, we received notice that the case was going to trial.
There were still many times when we felt it would collapse. We had calls from people working in the laboratories with DNA evidence who said their lives had been threatened, witness intimidation was rife and during the trial there were even efforts to remove the judge and replace her with a government crony. "I faced more insults than the accused or the prosecutors during this trial," the judge said when summing up.
But eventually, we got a guilty verdict. Four men, including the politician, were each sentenced to 20-years’ imprisonment in 2014. I wasn’t there when the men were sentenced but Nasser was and I remember the sheer relief in his voice when we spoke on the phone afterwards. He had fulfilled the promise he made to his brother and delivered justice.
I had seen Khuram’s brother suffer enormously over the years, spending almost every waking hour thinking about this day. I felt privileged to support him on this journey and to this day am proud to call him a friend. That his fight for justice is now being remembered in a powerful new documentary created by the Manchester-based production company Workerbee is extremely timely.
At the start of 2022, human rights are under threat at home and abroad, and Nasser’s struggle and the legacy his brother left show just how powerful a family’s love can be — and how sometimes the little people win. In an age of despots, disappearances and the rule of law unravelling, the story of a family from Rochdale taking the Sri Lankan government to the highest court in the land to bring Khuram’s killers to justice remains a huge source of inspiration to me.
But above all, it’s a reminder that justice always has to be fought for. And it has to be won.
Matt Baker was an adviser to the Labour Party from 2009 to 2015. Khuram Shaikh’s death is explored in “The Real Death in Paradise”, which will be broadcast on Quest Red today. It’s available to stream on Discovery+.