What Happened to Dr. Abbas Khan?

Over a year ago Dr. Abbas Khan, a young orthopaedic surgeon, decided to go to Syria to do what he could to help. He took with him equipment and supplies and crossed the Syrian border from Turkey illegally. The story of what actually happened leading up to his 2012 arrest is a bit sketchy, but it is known that he made it to Aleppo.

It is believed that Dr. Khan was having some kind of argument with rebel supporters in Aleppo about the medical equipment he had brought to Syria. Some thought he should sell the provisions but Abbas apparently insisted that they should be given away free. What happened next is unclear, except that Dr. Abbas Khan was arrested at some point after he got to Aleppo by Syrian government forces while working as an orthopaedic surgeon.

Syria Abbas Khan has died
Syria Abbas Khan has died

After his arrest, Dr. Khan was held incommunicado for more than a year. His family had not heard anything for such a long time, so his mother and sister went to Lebanon to seek a visa to visit Syria. It was there that Mrs. Khan and her daughter met George Galloway who is a reporter for The Independent. After hearing their story, George felt compelled to go into Syria to inquire about Dr. Khan, while Mrs. Khan and her daughter waited for their visas.

What George Galloway uncovered was interesting indeed. He expected to find Dr. Khan in the custody of Security Forces, and hoped there would be a possibility to arrange a visit and “at least confirm to his family that he had not been killed.” Instead, he found out after several weeks of inquiries that “State Security” was handling the case for Dr. Abbas Khan and that his case was “in the hands of higher officials in Syria.” Galloway said it was his assumption that “the Syrian government might be trying to deal directly with the British authorities.”

Certainly Mr. Galloway must have had a moment of relief, thinking Dr. Khan would be okay. He said, “It became increasingly evident that President Bashar al-Assad himself was involved in the case. Mrs Khan would never have obtained access to her son without presidential permission.” Mr. Galloway even felt that Assad had somehow begun to redeem himself with the west after negotiations with the Russians and he said, “Syria’s international status was, to some extent, redeemed.” He felt Assad “was in a perfect position to release a British citizen and obtain the gratitude, however churlishly given, of the British government.”

Unfortunately, Dr Khan Abbas was not released as expected. Instead, the family got a call they had dreaded for a year. Dr. Abbas was dead just four days before his release. The Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mokdad, told British Officials that Dr. Abbas committed suicide by hanging himself with his pajamas. How could this have happened? The family have reported that Dr. Abbas was upbeat about his release and had said he could hardly wait to return home to his wife and two young children.

George Galloway describes Khan’s death as “inexplicable.” He had just booked his air ticket to Damascus when he heard the news from Dr Khan’s family – and then from the Syrian deputy foreign minister himself. “As yet, no satisfactory explanation has been given to me. The idea of a man committing suicide just befoe he was to be released is impossible to believe. The Syrian government knows my stand on the war and on (American) intervention. A Syrian minister called me on behalf of the president (Assad) to come to Damascus before Christmas and take Abbas Khan home. We need an explanation.”

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said: “We are extremely concerned by reports that a British national has died in detention in Syria. We are urgently seeking clarification of this from the Syrian authorities.” The Foreign Office went on to say, “A British surgeon who died in detention in Syria was ‘in effect murdered’ by the country’s regime. The death of Dr. Khan has now turn into an international political event with Syria that Bashar Assasd would not have wanted to orchestrate.” George Galloway stated, “Assad will be among the keenest to know what happened in the cell in the Kfar Soussa prison where Abbas Khan was kept.”

The question has to be asked, how could this have happened if Assad was in control of Dr. Khan’s return home, if for nothing else but to build political capital? Did Assad’s own elite security guard at the Kfar Sussa prison turn on him and kill Dr. Khan? If so, why?

Kimberly Jones is a global nomad with a special interest in the Middle East and North Africa. She grew up in Saudi Arabia and traveled throughout the MENA growing deeply attached to the people and the culture.