Abbas Khan: why did British doctor die in Syrian prison?
Syrian regime accused of 'murder most foul' as doctor dies days before he was due to be released
THE death of a British doctor in Syria has prompted criticism of the UK Foreign Office and highlighted the dangers faced by health workers trying to help victims of the country's bloody civil war.
After more than a year in a Damascus prison, Dr Abbas Khan was due to be released this Friday and had planned to spend Christmas with his family. Then on Monday the Syrian regime claimed he had committed suicide. But his family, commentators and the Foreign Office refuse to believe that he took his own life.
Who is Abbas Khan?
The 32-year-old orthopaedic surgeon from south London was one of seven brothers and sisters. He is survived by his wife Hanna, his seven-year-old son Abdullah and six-year-old daughter Ruqquaya. Khan had worked at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, north-west London, but travelled to Turkey last year with the charity Human Aid to work in Syrian refugee camps. He had not originally planned to go into Syria but went there in November 2012 to treat badly injured civilians. He was unable to get a visa but, armed with medical supplies, crossed the border and started working in a makeshift hospital in Aleppo. Within 48 hours he was detained by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.
What happened next?
For six months Khan's family did not know if he was alive or dead. His mother, Fatima, finally traced him to a prison in Damascus. He weighed just five stone when she found him and was barely able to walk. He said he had been tortured while being detained without charge. In a letter to the Foreign Office, Khan said he had been beaten "largely for no reason other than the pleasure of my captors" and had been forced to beat other prisoners. He endured squalid conditions and was denied access to toilets or medical treatment.
How did he die?
The Syrian regime says Khan used his pyjamas to hang himself. However, his family say it is "absurd" to suggest he would have committed suicide days before his release. George Galloway, the Respect MP for Bradford West who was due to collect Khan on Friday, says his death was "murder most foul" and it was "inconceivable that he committed suicide". Foreign Office minister Hugh Robertson says Khan has been "in effect murdered" by the Syrian authorities. He said the death was "at best extremely suspicious" and is seeking "urgent clarification" about the circumstances of his death.
Why might he have been killed?
Paul Wood, a BBC correspondent in Beirut, says Khan might have been a casualty of a power struggle between the Syrian president and his own security services. "Only President Assad could have ordered the doctor's release," he said. "If he did so it may well have been a goodwill gesture in the run up to peace talks that Britain is helping to organise. Some in the regime perhaps do not want those talks to succeed."
What has Khan's family said?
Khan's mother, who has spent months in Damascus fighting for her son to be freed, is said to be a "state of shock and disbelief". His brothers have accused the UK government of offering "little assistance" and treating their sibling like a "wayward traveller in Dubai being caught drunk". One of Khan's brothers, Afroze, said: "We are devastated, distraught and we are angry at the Foreign Office for dragging their feet for 13 months."
Are other healthcare workers at risk?
Concerns have repeatedly been raised about the safety of healthcare workers in Syria. In September, the Lancet published a letter signed by over 50 prominent doctors from around the world calling for protected access to healthcare in Syria. Nearly 470 doctors have been imprisoned by the Syrian regime, they said. Saleyha Ahsan, a London doctor who has worked in Syria, told Radio 4's Today programme this morning that safe access to healthcare – an international standard enshrined in humanitarian law – has been repeatedly breached in the Syrian crisis. She added: "In Syria, if you wear the emblem of the Red Cross, you are openly making yourself a target." ·