Doctor Abbas Khan: Orthopaedic surgeon arrested on a humanitarian mission who died after a year in a Syrian prison


Abbas Khan was a British doctor whose altruism took him to Syria to help with the long-running humanitarian crisis in that ravaged country. But he was plunged into a nightmare year of torture and confinement which ended in a lonely prison death.

Few accept the assertion of the Syrian government that he took his own life, particularly since he had been told he was only days away from being allowed home to Britain. The Syrian claim was utterly rejected by his family while the British government starkly declared that he was "in effect murdered." The Respect MP George Galloway, who had been negotiating with the Assad regime for his release, said it was inconceivable he had committed suicide, describing his death as "murder most foul."

The Khan family had been looking forward to welcoming him home for Christmas. According to his sister Sara he had said in a recent letter, "I can't wait to be back with you guys." They now describe themselves as "devastated and distraught." The family were also highly critical of the Foreign Office, complaining that they had received very little assistance and adding: "We are British citizens, and in our time of need the British government has forsaken us. My brother has been abandoned by his government."

The timing of the death raises important questions concerning the authority of President Assad, who had been personally involved in the decision to set the doctor free. The question arises: was someone in the government or intelligence apparatus intent on scuppering an Assad initiative towards a softer approach?

Abbas Khan was by no means the first medical casualty of Syria's civil war: the regime and various factions have been accused of targeting medical staff. Doctors and opposition organisations say more than 100 physicians have been killed while hundreds more have disappeared. In September the UN said it was alarmed by "the deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel and transports."

Aged 32, from a family of Indian origin, Abbas Khan was born in London. He was married with two children, a six-year-old son, Abdullah, and a seven-year-old daughter, Rurayya. An orthopaedic surgeon, he worked at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, north London and had previously worked at the Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust.

He left for the Middle East last year on a personal humanitarian mission after being moved by reports of huge numbers of civilian casualties. He flew out first to Turkey and then crossed into Syria, where his intention was to work as an emergency surgeon, but he was arrested within 48 hours of his arrival. It was some months before his family received confirmation that he was alive.

In letters home he said he had lost 40 to 50 per cent of his body weight due to repeated bouts of diarrhoea and chronic dermatological infection. When his mother Fatima was allowed to see him she found that "he was like a skeleton and could barely walk." He said he had been tortured and kept in dank cells infested with rats and lice. At one hearing, he said, he had been "accused of treating dying civilians, women and children – which has been classed as an act of terrorism."

Complaining of deteriorating mental health, he wrote that he had experienced "repeated and severe beatings, largely for no reason other than the pleasure of my captors." He suffered, he said, from "almost constant depression and suicidal ideation." He added: "I have been violently forced to beat other prisoners, kept in squalid conditions, denied access to toilets or medical treatment. I have also experienced male prisoners being beaten to death and female prisoners screaming as they were being abused."

His mother, who spent months in Damascus campaigning for his release, was told she could visit him on Monday last, but was then informed that he had died. The authorities insisted he had committed suicide by hanging himself with his pyjamas. His sister Sara said of him: "My brother is my hero. He didn't die in a normal way, he died trying to make a difference. Some could say he was naive for going out there and risking his life but he went out there because he knew his skills could help. He did something that he believed in and made an example for other people to do things."

His brother Afroze, who is also a doctor, said: "An innocent life was taken meaninglessly. He was the best brother I could have ever asked for and I know no one with a purer heart than him."

Abbas Khan, orthopaedic surgeon: born London 1981; married (two children); died Syria December 2013.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission, Benefits, OTE £100k: SThree: ...

Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

£32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

£27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you a recent graduate loo...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine