The sad and puzzling story of Abbas Khan, the British doctor found dead in Syrian jail

What prompted the death of a man whose life was more valuable to Assad than any other foreigner’s in Syria?

Share
Related Topics

I first met Fatima Khan in the Syrian embassy in Beirut early this year.  She was pleading for a visa so that she and her daughter Sara could visit Damascus and seek news of her missing son. I knew nothing of Abbas Khan, but – aware that I had a visa waiting for me – I promised to find out anything I could once I reached the Syrian capital.  Sara told me the story of her brother Abbas, his birth in London, his marriage and children, and of how – moved by compassion for the suffering of civilians in rebel-held areas of Syria – he had crossed the frontier from Turkey to take medical equipment to Aleppo last year.

There had perhaps been an argument with others there, as to whether the equipment should be sold or given away. Abbas was donating the medicines free.  He was taking a walk down a road he thought safe when he was seized by Syrian government forces.  Did they know he was coming?  How was he captured?  The family had no news – but they were sure he was alive.

I made my way to Damascus and raised the disappearance of Abbas Khan with several Syrian  government officials.  They were sympathetic.  They wanted to help.  I said that if we could establish that he was alive and in a security prison, I would like to see him – so that I could at least confirm to his family that he had not been killed.  But after several weeks, I was informed that ‘state security’ was handling the matter, that Abbas Khan’s case was in the hands of higher officials in Syria, and that – and this was only an assumption on my part – the Syrian government might be trying to deal directly with the British authorities.

I decided to step back.  Not least when I heard that Fatima Khan had herself been offered a visa to Damascus and was able not only to visit Syria but to see her son and ensure that he was transferred to a more lenient prison and to hire a lawyer for his appearance in a Damascus court.  Mrs Khan visited various ministries and the Czech and Russian embassies, asking all the time for their help in releasing her son.  As she obtained further visas, it seemed that Abbas Khan was safe.  However long it took, he would be returned home.

And it became increasingly evident that President Bashar al-Assad himself was involved in the case.  Mrs Khan would never have obtained access to her son without presidential permission.  And it was not difficult to see how, after the West abandoned its military options against Syria under Russian duress – and after the British and American people expressed their refusal to embark upon another Middle East war – Syria’s international status was, to some extent, redeemed.

There were no more calls from Barack Obama for Assad to “step aside” or “step down”.  There were no more claims by John Kerry that Bashar was Hitler or worse than Hitler. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius no longer announced – as he did more than a year ago – that Bashar no longer deserved “to live on this planet”.  Assad’s enemies were increasingly identified with al-Qaeda – an enemy of the West infinitely more frightening than the Syrian regime.  Assad was in a perfect position to release a British citizen – to George Galloway whom he knew personally – and obtain the gratitude, however churlishly given, of the British government.

And then it all went wrong. Abbas Khan was dead. And Faisal Mokdad, the Syrian foreign minister – a decent and intelligent man – was forced to explain a suicide which I frankly do not accept that he himself believed. What happened?

Back in 2005, when former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut, the world blamed Bashar al-Assad. Bashar denied this – and an American journalist who was with him when he heard the news of Hariri’s death described Bashar’s surprise.  Then word got around that Syrian state security had their own reasons for wanting Hariri dead – they believed he was plotting with the French to destroy Syrian power in Lebanon and thus decided to kill him – even if this provoked an outcry which would force Syrian troops to leave their satrapy in Beirut.  Treachery is a more powerful emotion than real politic. 

But if this is true, then the implications are now made manifest in the death of the young and brave Abbas Khan.  A man whose life last week was more valuable to Assad than any other foreigner’s in Syria was suddenly ‘found’ dead in a state security prison, on the very eve of his release to a British MP who is a trusted figure in the Assad household.  Was someone trying to destroy the Syrian president’s steadily improving if still frozen relations with Britain and the US?  Who would want to prevent such an improvement?  Saudi Arabia? Of course. Qatar? Absolutely. Israel? Why not? But to suggest than any of these three could engineer the killing of a young Englishman in a Damascus prison is surely preposterous.

In the coming days, we shall assuredly find out more. Assad will be among the keenest to know what happened in the cell in the Kfar Soussa prison where Abbas Khan – so happily awaiting his release and to be reunited with his family in London – ended up hanging from his pyjamas on the very eve of his freedom.  How did he die? is one question.  Who killed him? is quite another.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness