x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Family of surgeon found dead in Damascus criticises British government

Relatives of Abbas Khan, a surgeon from South London who had gone to treat victims of the conflict in Syria, say British government did not do enough to secure his release.

LONDON // The family of a London doctor who was found dead in a Damascus prison have accused the British government of not doing enough to secure his release.

Relatives of Abbas Khan, a surgeon from South London who had gone to Turkey and Syria to treat victims of the conflict in Syria, also dismissed as “complete fiction” the Syrian government’s claim that Khan had committed suicide in jail.

The British foreign office minister, Hugh Robertson, on Tuesday accused the Syrian government of murdering Khan and said the British government was seeking “urgent clarification” over a death he described as “at best extremely suspicious”.

But one of the doctor’s brothers, Shahnawaz Khan, said yesterday that the British government had been slow to react to repeated entreaties by the family to secure his safe release over the 13 months his brother was detained.

Instead the government had offered “very little assistance” and treated the case as if his brother were “some wayward traveller in Dubai being caught drunk, and contravened some trivial law in Syria”, he said.

Khan had travelled to Turkey last year, moved by the plight of refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria, relatives said. He worked in refugee camps with the UK charity Human Aid before crossing the border into Syria after hearing of the hardships there. He worked a few days in a field hospital in Aleppo before being seized by government troops at a checkpoint late last year.

He was never charged with a crime but the regime claimed he had entered the country without a visa.

According to the Khan family, his time in prison had been marked by mistreatment and torture. Earlier this year, his mother, Fatima, travelled to Syria and found him in a Damascus prison. He weighed just 32 kilograms, she said.

Last week, another brother, Afroze, issued a public plea for the British government to step up their efforts to seek Khan’s release, warning that he was in an unstable mental state. “There is a real danger that he might harm himself,” Afroze Khan said.

After mediation by some British politicians, including the Respect Party leader and parliamentarian George Galloway, Khan seemed set for release.

Several letters sent to the family expressing his delight at returning home make it appear unlikely he committed suicide, Afroze said yesterday.

“He was ready to come back home. He was happy and looking forward to being released,” he said.

Mr Galloway, who had prepared to travel to Damascus this week to bring Khan back after negotiating a release, also expressed astonishment at the news of Khan’s death.

Calling it a “murder most foul”, Mr Galloway said Khan’s death was “inexplicable”. The Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, had ordered Khan’s release, Mr Galloway said.

“The idea of a man committing suicide four days before he was to be released is impossible to believe. A Syrian minister called me on behalf of the president to come to Damascus before Christmas and take Abbas Khan home. We need an explanation.”

Syrian officials, who said Khan had hanged himself in his prison cell using his pyjamas, yesterday said the Khan family could arrange an independent autopsy to inquiry his death.

But Shahnawaz Khan rejected that explanation as a “complete fiction”. He said the official Syrian explanation was “utter nonsense”.

One of seven siblings, Khan’s family said they were devastated.

But Shahnawaz Khan said his brother had died for a good cause.

“We are proud that he died doing something he believed in and helping people who were in desperate need.”

Abbas Khan is survived by his wife, Hanna, son Abdullah, 7, and a daughter, Ruqquaya, 6.

okarmi@thenational.ae