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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
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
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?