Middle East

Family of British surgeon locked in waiting game

This undated file photo shows British doctor Abbas Khan. (Photo courtesy of Sara Khan)

BEIRUT: Nearly three weeks after her brother died in a Syrian jail, Sara Khan is now playing the waiting game: waiting for the postmortem results and waiting for answers from the Syrian government. Dr. Abbas Khan, 32 and from London, was found hanging in his jail cell on Dec. 16, in circumstances the British government has labeled “murder.” Due to be released only a few days later, Khan’s family has ridiculed claims he took his own life, but his sister believes that rogue elements, not Syrian President Bashar Assad, ordered his death.

When Khan’s body arrived from Syria to Beirut, the family discovered it had been embalmed, something they had explicitly asked the authorities not to do, and they believe this was done to cover up evidence of his killing.

Khan was detained over a year ago in Aleppo, having entered Syria to volunteer in medical centers, but without a visa. He was never charged.

In the summer his mother was able to visit her son in Adra prison. And 15 days before his death, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad called her to say he would be released shortly, and that it was merely a matter of paperwork now, his sister said in a phone interview.

But several days before he died he was moved to the National Security prison, also in the capital.

“I’m confused as to why the National Security Branch collected him on the Friday [before he died] and he then ‘committed suicide,’” his sister said. “It makes me think it wasn’t a decision of Bashar but an act of defiance against him,” Khan, 24, added. “I think there are divisions within the government, I’m pretty sure of that.”

For Assad, trying to win friends ahead of Geneva talks later this month, Khan’s release would have been a public relations coup, she said. “Assad wants to make warmer relations with the West. I think maybe someone wanted to undermine him in that.’

She also believes her brother’s killers may have wanted to hush him up. “They were probably wary of the fact he was going to come back and talk and 10-15 years down the line someone will be tried for a war crime. And I hope that that this will still happen.”

Tens of thousands of people are believed to be held in government jails, and torture and killings have been widely documented.

Khan is resigned to the fact that the family will never know the full circumstances of her brother’s death – “And they’ll never admit that Bashar did not have control over the security agencies” – but she says the information provided by the government thus far has been insulting.

“What the Syrians have given us so far is outrageous. Someone initially said he had hung himself by his pajamas on a door handle. Then Mekdad said it was on a window. How was he found? It’s pathetic. This is someone’s life.”

She is also fiercely critical of the British government, which said after his death it was following up the case with Syrian authorities, but from whom she has not heard following a letter, upon Khan’s repatriation, in which Prime Minister David Cameron called his death sickening.

“That letter means nothing me. If he had taken the time he spent to write the letter to follow up on the case a few months before he died, my brother would be alive now.”

Khan was an orthopedic surgeon who went to Syria to volunteer his medical expertise, but his sister was hesitant to lionize him.

“I know he wouldn’t want to be remembered as a hero, he would always say the true heroes are nameless ... that the people that give sacrifices on a daily basis are the real heroes,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 08, 2014, on page 8.




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