07/26/2013 10:47 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Behind 'The Brothers Shaik'

The story of Khuram Shaikh was awful but not unheard of. People go away and never come back. They get in terrible accidents; they are caught up in senseless crimes. Khuram was murdered. His girlfriend, Victoria, was gang-raped. They were at a resort on the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, near the city of Hambantota, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's hometown. It was horrific, and it should never have happened, but these things do happen.

What usually does not happen is that everyone knows who is responsible for the murdering and raping, and no one is convicted. So it was in this case. Within a few days of the attack, on December 25, 2011, eight men were arrested -- and 11 months later, they were released on bail. The apparent reason -- widely believed but never acknowledged by the Sri Lankan authorities -- is that the alleged ringleader of this calamity was Sampath Chandra Pushpa, a local politician who is thought to be close to the president. (They are pictured together here.)

I had heard of Khuram Shaikh when I was living in Colombo. His death reminded me of the death of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who was murdered in 2006 in the elevator of her apartment building in the center of Moscow. I had covered the Politkovskaya story for GQ, and there were similarities between the ways that justice, as it were, took place in Russia and in Sri Lanka. In Russia, everyone knew that someone important, probably in Chechnya, had ordered Politkovskaya's murder, and everyone knew that if the Kremlin wanted to arrest this person, it could, and everyone knew that that would never happen. In Sri Lanka, it was the same thing. In fact, even more so. In Sri Lanka, there was no layer of responsibility or violence separating the murder from the orderer of the murder, as in Russia. In Sri Lanka, there was simply an awful crime, and there was DNA evidence, and there were eyewitnesses. And, of course, as in Moscow, there would be no resolution.

I had also heard of Nasser Shaikh, Khuram's brother, and I wanted to know his story. He had been waging a protracted campaign to bring his brother's killers to justice. Everyone in Sri Lanka -- diplomats, journalists, people who had been following the whole debacle -- believed this quest was Sisyphean and hopeless, and they admired Nasser for his tenacity, and they felt sorry for him and his family. They understood he had to do this -- he had to push as hard as he could to do right by his brother -- and they thought it would come to nothing. I thought they were probably right.

I called Nasser and told him I wanted to shoot a documentary, which I later titled "The Brothers Shaikh." Because he was desperate, he agreed to be interviewed. We met at his home, in Manchester, England. While I was there, I met Nasser's wife and kids, ages five and one, and his parents, who immigrated to Britain in the 1960s from Pakistan. Nasser's mother fed us. Nasser and his father played snooker. Years ago, Nasser's father owned a snooker hall, and before Khuram was killed, he had promised to build a little snooker room next to their house. Khuram did not live to see that happen, but his father built the snooker room anyway.

Then, after three days in England, Nasser and I flew to Colombo -- we shot footage in the airports and on the plane with our cell phones -- and then we drove to Tangalle, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. We took a van. On the way down -- it took four hours to navigate the roads, most of which were cluttered with motorized rickshaws known as tuk-tuks and dogs and ancient trucks and children on bicycles -- I asked Nasser if he was afraid to go back to the place where his brother had been killed. He nodded.

Before we arrived, I thought there might be violence. There might be security, police, thugs who were owned by the local authorities, which included the man who had killed Nasser's brother. But it became clear soon after we arrived at the hotel, that that was not the real danger. The real danger was less visible. I didn't appreciate this until Nasser and I ordered a beer at the café a few feet from where his brother had bled to death. It felt repugnant but, weirdly, necessary.

It is widely believed outside places like Sri Lanka or Russia that leaders of authoritarian regimes do not impose justice on their allies because they are their friends. That is not the reason. The reason is that they are their clients, and if the leader stops paying his clients (in money and indemnity), the client abandons the leader. It is a transaction. Khuram and Nasser had apparently been trapped inside an act of political commerce, and it was monstrously hard to disentangle that. But Nasser, in going to Tangalle, had pushed up against something that other people had thought immoveable. He had achieved something, although what that is remains out of focus.