British doctor dies in Syria jail

17th December 2013, Comments 0 comments

A British surgeon imprisoned in Syria for over a year after volunteering to work at a hospital has died in prison, just days before he was due to be handed over to a lawmaker, his family said.

Abbas Khan, a 32-year-old orthopaedic surgeon from south London, travelled to the conflict-torn northern city of Aleppo last year to help treat civilians but was captured by the Syrian regime.

He died days before firebrand British lawmaker George Galloway was due to fly to Damascus so Khan could be handed over on what Galloway said were President Bashar al-Assad's orders.

Britain's Foreign Office said it was "extremely concerned" by reports of the death of the father-of-two and was seeking confirmation from the Syrian government.

Khan's brother Afroze told the BBC that Syrian authorities had promised to release him this week, but on Monday they told the family he had died.

"My brother was going to be released at the end of the week. We were given assurance by the Syrian government," said Khan, 34.

"My brother knew that. He was ready to come back home. He was happy and looking forward to being released."

The family said it had no information on how he died.

But the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Khan's wife had confirmed that Galloway told her the Syrian authorities were claiming her husband had committed suicide.

"The Observatory believes there is an overwhelming likelihood he died of torture, because there are hundreds of similar cases in which the regime says a prisoner committed suicide when in fact they were tortured to death," founder Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

'Deeply troubling death'

Khan's family had been unaware of his plight for eight months until his mother Fatima travelled to Damascus over the summer and managed to track him down.

Khan reportedly wrote to British Foreign Secretary William Hague earlier this year describing how he had lost around half his body weight in the squalid conditions of his detention, during which he had been forced to beat other prisoners.

Galloway -- a vocal critic of the western policy on supporting Syrian rebels, having bitterly opposed the Iraq war in 2003 -- said he had been due to fly out to Syria within days to bring the doctor home.

"Last week I received a call from the (Syrian) foreign minister telling me that the president had asked him to contact me to come to Damascus to bring Dr Khan home before Christmas," said Galloway in a statement.

"Obviously this had to be kept confidential but the family were kept fully informed. I was in the process of booking a flight for this Friday when I got the appalling news."

Galloway said he was still awaiting "clarification on how exactly he died" but added that it was "heartbreaking and devastating news".

Afroze Khan accused the British Foreign Office of failing to take action.

"We are devastated, distraught and we are angry at the Foreign Office for dragging their feet for 13 months," he told the BBC.

The Foreign Office said it had sought consular access to Khan on several occasions, but all its requests had been ignored.

"We are extremely concerned by reports that Dr Khan has died in detention in Syria and are urgently seeking confirmation from the Syrian authorities," it said in a statement.

"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."

Rights group Amnesty International said this was "yet another deeply troubling death in custody in Syria" and called on the British government to "denounce" his death.

© 2013 AFP

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