Family of 'murdered' doctor Abbas Khan fight for return of his body from Syria

Relatives criticise Foreign Office for lack of action

Paul Gallagher
Wednesday 18 December 2013 17:07
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British surgeon Dr Abbas Khan was imprisoned in Syria for over a year
British surgeon Dr Abbas Khan was imprisoned in Syria for over a year

The family of Abbas Khan demanded the immediate return home of his body on Wednesday as relatives of the “murdered” doctor criticised the UK Government for failing them during the 13 months he was held captive in Syria.

Dr Khan, 32, an orthopaedic surgeon from Streatham in south London, was days away from being released when he was discovered hanged by his pyjamas in the state interrogation centre at Kfar Soussa, Damascus. The Syrian government claim he committed suicide but the Foreign Office minister Hugh Robertson said the Assad regime had “in effect murdered a British national”.

Although Dr Khan’s weight had plummeted to less than five stone and he had been tortured, Shahnawaz Khan said his brother was in “high spirits” due to news of his imminent release in time to spend Christmas with the rest of his family.

Mr Khan said on Wednesday: “We have been telling (the Foreign Office) for 13 months that this is a very real possibility. And they have treated his case like he’s been some wayward traveller in Dubai being caught drunk, and contravened some trivial law in Syria.

“The fact that this individual was out there helping the humanitarian effort and has been held for 13 months against his will, without a charge or a trial or access to a lawyer, and they have offered very little assistance, placated us throughout.”

Syria’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that X-rays showed no signs of violence or mistreatment as Syria’s state news agency reported government officials have handed over a medical report detailing Dr Khan’s death to a representative of the Czech Embassy on Wednesday. Britain, which has suspended its diplomatic services in Syria, had been seeking consular access to Khan through the Czechs and others.

Shahnawaz Khan rejected calls from the Syrian authorities for the family to send a team to Damascus to investigate the death. Mr Khan said: “We do not want any more investigations we want his body to be released and brought home. The authorities allowing an investigation is... frankly insulting.”

Mr Khan said the death of his brother, who worked at the Royal National Orthopaedic hospital and briefly as a research fellow for Epsom and St Helier University Hospital Trust until January 2012, had brought “utter despair” to the family but they were proud that he died doing something he believed in.

The married father-of-two was on a humanitarian visit with a charity to deliver medical supplies and emergency aid to Syrian refugees in Turkey when he decided to cross the border independently after hearing stories of children dying on the streets of Aleppo because of a dire shortage of medics.

He was arrested by government forces within two days of arriving in the city to work as an emergency surgeon and held incommunicado for more than a year. His whereabouts was unknown to his family until his 55-year-old mother, Fatima, travelled to Damascus and visited him four times in the last four months by which time he could barely walk.

She was able to take two letters written by her son to show Foreign Secretary William Hague. Dr Khan wrote of enduring “several episodes of severe violence and degrading treatment in appalling and inhumane conditions”.

Respect MP George Galloway, who was about to travel to Damascus via Beirut to collect Dr Khan and return home with him, on Wednesday criticised the Foreign Office (FCO).

Speaking to 'Voice of Russia', Mr Galloway said: “The British Foreign Office didn’t act at all. They did absolutely nothing to get him out.”

He said he had spoken with the Foreign Office on two occasions and was told not to bring back Dr Khan because the FCO could not guarantee Mr Galloway’s safety or help him in any way.

Mr Galloway added: “Britain is up to its neck in the blood and gore in Syria. There have been more than 110,000 lives lost, and Britain is deeply culpable in all of them.”

Responding to the criticism a spokesperson for the FCO said on Wednesday: “Responsibility for Dr Khan’s death lies with (the Syrian authorities) and we will be pressing for answers about what happened. We are in regular contact with Dr Khan’s family and providing consular support to them.

“We have consistently sought consular access to Dr Khan and information on his detention, directly and through the Russians, Czechs and others. In November, Minister Robertson wrote making clear our concerns about his welfare and treatment, stressing that the regime’s failure to provide any information that would indicate Dr Khan’s continued detention is legitimate meant his position should be reviewed immediately. These requests have consistently been ignored.”

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