BEIRUT: A British government minister Tuesday accused the Syrian government of murder after a London doctor died in custody several days before he was due to be released, threatening an escalation in diplomatic tension over the case.
Dr. Abbas Khan, 32 and a father of two, was due to be released Friday, those involved in the negotiations said, after having been arrested over a year ago in Aleppo, where he was working as a volunteer in a rebel-held area. He entered Syria from Turkey, without a visa, but was detained without charge.
Minister of State for the Foreign Office Minister Hugh Robertson, who had been following Khan’s case, told the BBC that there was no excuse for “Syrian authorities who have, in effect, murdered a British national who was in their country to help people who were injured during their civil war.”
“We can’t at the moment be absolutely certain about the circumstances in which Dr. Khan met his death, but what is clear is that he ... met his death while he was in prison in circumstances that are at best extremely suspicious.”
A government official told the BBC Khan had committed suicide in his cell.
Khan, an orthopedic surgeon, was initially taken to a prison in Damascus, but recently, his brother told the BBC, he was moved to the National Security Agency headquarters, also in the capital.
George Galloway, a British MP who has maintained close contact with the Syrian government and was acting as an intermediary between Khan’s family and the authorities, was due to travel from Beirut to Damascus Friday to collect Khan and bring him home.
Khan’s mother, who had traveled to Damascus from London in July to follow up on his case, was contacted Monday by security agencies, believing she was going to be allowed to speak with her son, a spokesman for Galloway told The Daily Star. Instead, she was informed of his death.
Galloway was informed Monday that Khan had been found dead that morning, in an apparent suicide, his spokesperson Ron McKay said, expressing skepticism over the claims.
McKay said that Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad telephoned Galloway, “and he did give detail, whether or not we believe it. He was given breakfast ... and after they returned, he was found to have hung himself with his pajama bottoms. The story doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make any sense,” McKay said.
“Why would the regime have him executed when they would have a publicity coup in getting him released? And why would he kill himself if he knew he was coming back?” he asked.
McKay was also doubtful that there would have been a hook allowed in his cell and suggested “rogue elements” within the regime may have been responsible: “I don’t know if there is some dissension within the regime or the security services.”
The British Foreign Office also said that responsibility for his death lay with the Syrian authorities.
“We are extremely concerned by reports that Dr. Khan has died in detention in Syria and are urgently seeking confirmation from the Syrian authorities. If these tragic reports are true, responsibility for Dr. Khan’s death lies with them, and we will be pressing for answers about what happened.”
In an earlier statement, Galloway said that Syrian President Bashar Assad himself had given the orders for Khan to be sent home.
“I have been in contact with the Syrian government many times, up to and including the president, the foreign minister, the justice minister and other ministers. Last week I received a call from the foreign minister telling me that the president had asked him to contact me to come to Damascus to bring Dr. Khan home before Christmas.”
Amnesty International urged the British government to follow up on the case, and to refer the Syrian regime to the International Criminal Court.
“The U.K. government should denounce Dr. Khan’s death in the strongest possible terms and ensure that, no matter how long it takes, whoever is responsible is brought to justice,” said Amnesty U.K. Syria manager, Kristyan Benedict. “Dr. Khan’s tragic death reinforces the need for the U.K. to continue pressing for the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.”
Amnesty has received the names of over 1,000 people believed to have died in government custody.
On Twitter, his brother called for his body to be returned home.
“He was the best brother I could have ever asked for and I know no one with a purer heart than him. His release was due to be this week. ... I thank you all for your love and support. We still need your help. Abbas is not home. Help us bring him home for the burial he deserves.”