India-origin British doctor dies in Syrian custody

A London-based surgeon who had gone to serve in Syria for a charity was found dead in a prison, just days after the Syrian National Security Agency promised his release.

On Monday, 32-year-old Dr Abbas Khan who was held in a notorious military prison in Damascus was found dead, just a week before he was to fly back to Britain. The civil war in Syria had disturbed Dr Khan. He therefore took off to the war torn country to treat innocent civilians.

Later, the orthopaedic surgeon from Streatham, south London was arrested at a checkpoint for treating wounded civilians at a field hospital in Aleppo. Britain’s foreign office told his family on Tuesday that the father-of-two had been killed.

The circumstances of his death are still unclear with his family claiming it was the work of the “barbaric” Syrian regime.

Dr Khan’s brother Afroze said he was shell shocked.

“My brother was going to be released at the end of the week. We were given assurance by the Syrian government. My brother knew that. He was ready to come back home. He was happy and looking forward to being released.”

He added “We are devastated, distraught and we are angry at the Foreign Office for dragging their feet for 13 months.”

Ever since the civil war started to ravage the country two years ago, 469 health workers have been imprisoned and about 15,000 doctors have fled the country. In Syria’s largest city, Aleppo for example, there are just 36 physicians, compared to 5,000 before the civil war began.

It said systematic assaults on medical professionals, facilities and patients are breaking Syria’s healthcare system.

The WHO says 37% of Syrian hospitals have been destroyed and a further 20% severely damaged.

Britain’s Foreign Office said they were extremely concerned by the news that a British national had died in detention in Syria.

The FCO said Dr Khan was arrested two days after crossing into Syria from Turkey without a valid visa on November 22, 2012.

“We are urgently seeking clarification of this 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.” They added “We have consistently sought consular access to Dr Khan and information on his detention, directly and through the Russians and Czechs. In November, we 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.”

Mr Khan was supposedly moved from a prison in Damascus to the National Security Agency’s headquarters recently.

Mr Khan has two children – a son Abdullah who is six years old and daughter Rurayya who is a year older.

Mr Khan’s mother Fatima handed two letters written by him to Britain’s foreign minister William Hague.

In one of the letters, he wrote “I have been violently forced to beat other prisoners, kept in squalid conditions, denied access to toilets or medical treatment. Repeated bouts of diarrhoea and chronic dermatological infection saw me lose 40-50% of my body weight. I have also experienced male prisoners being beaten to death and female prisoners screaming as they were being abused.”

In a second letter, written last month, he said “I have been subject to several episodes of severe violence and degrading treatment. This, in addition to being kept in appalling and inhumane conditions, has seen my mental health markedly deteriorate.”

Dr Khan’s brother is now on their way to Beirut where his mother is staying to try to get his body home.

In a joint statement the Syrian British Medical Society and the British Islamic Medical Association called his death a “stark reminder of the brutality of the Syrian regime.”

They said: “Both organisations are deeply saddened by the loss of a brave and conscientious colleague, who paid the ultimate price for his desire to help fellow human beings in their hour of suffering.”

“The systematic and sustained targeting of healthcare staff and facilities by the Syrian Regime has been repeatedly highlighted by many international reports, as it is a serious violation of those laws and convention.”