Dr Abbas Khan’s tragic death will be honoured. It should also lead to action

On Friday 17 January family members, dignitaries and community representatives in Greater Manchester and elsewhere are to pay their respects to the British doctor Dr Abbas Khan, and also to remember the thousands of other victims of Syria’s prisons. There will be a number of notable guests including brothers of Dr Khan.
 
Dr Khan, an orthopaedic surgeon from south London, went to Syria in November 2012 to carry out voluntary medical work for the injured in the devastated city of Aleppo. He was arrested by the Syrian authorities at a check-point and held at the notorious Far’ Falastin detention centre, outside Damascus, where he was repeatedly tortured. He was denied any communication with the outside world until his indomitable mother Fatima managed to visit him nine months into his detention. Tragically, last month - on 17 December - Dr Khan’s family was informed of his death. The Syrian authorities claimed that he had killed himself, while his family strongly believes he was murdered.
 
There are some very serious questions to be answered over Dr Khan’s detention and subsequent treatment. The big question is the most obvious: how are we supposed to believe that a man who was finally set to be released from prison only a few days later would instead kill himself? The Syrian authorities have stuck to their story that Dr Khan mysteriously committed suicide. We emphatically do not believe this. Abbas was just days away from release and a long-awaited reunion with his beloved wife Hanna and his young children Abdullah and Ruqquiah.
 
Even if for one moment you accepted the Syrian governments version of events, this would only raise questions about the dire circumstances of Dr Khan’s detention. How bad were they that he preferred to take his own life to escape the day-to-say suffering he was experiencing? In fact, was he actually killed to silence him over the torture he’d endured? We understand that Dr Khan told his mother only part of what he was suffering in detention. It seems entirely possible that he was killed to prevent the full truth emerging.
 
Obviously, Dr Khan is far from being the only victim of this awful conflict, or indeed the only person to die in one of Assad’s jails. Amnesty International has gathered the names of over 1,000 other people who have died whilst in the custody of the Syrian security forces. In addition to this terrible death toll, many thousands of people have been secretly detained and effectively “disappeared” by the authorities.
 
The UK government will have known all this and it’s a grievous disappointment to Dr Khan’s family that they didn’t do more to help him. They’re asking - how could a British surgeon ever have been allowed to languish for so long in one of Assad’s jails with little or no support offered to him? The family feel badly let down by the inaction of the UK government.
 
The aim of Friday’s memorial event is to pay our respect to the late Dr Abbas Khan and his brave family. We feel this is a major event as his suffering and eventual death highlight the enormous humanitarian suffering of the tens of thousands in Assad’s prisons and the millions of Syrian who have been killed, injured or displaced by the conflict. Dr Khan’s tragic death symbolises how isolated the victims of the Syrian conflict feel.
 
In addition, this tragic story demonstrates the importance of launching a campaign to put pressure on the UK government to push for a resolution at the UN Security Council requiring the Syrian government to open its prisons to international inspectors.
 
The memorial event which is organised by Rethink Rebuild Society and sponsored by Amnesty International UK, will take place at the British Muslim Heritage Centre, College Road, Manchester M16 8BP between 8pm-10pm on Friday 17 January.
 
Everyone is welcome.
 
For more on the campaign over Syrian prisons, see: www.britishsyriancentre.com/prisoners

Guest Post by Haytham Alhamwi, Office Manager of the Rethink Rebuild Society, the voice of the Syrian Community in Manchester

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