There is a gut wrenching pain in the British Muslim community this week. The world paused and watched in horror as a devastated mother buried her son. This mother, Fatima Khan, had spent the last five months in Syria pleading with the Syrian government to free her son, Dr Abbas Khan, from prison. Just four days prior to his release he was brutally murdered by the regime. To make matters worse the Syrian Foreign Ministry claimed he had committed suicide.
In November 2012 Abbas Khan, a 32-year-old orthopaedic surgeon, and father of two, from London, went on a humanitarian aid mission to Turkey. Khan was due to be in Turkey for just two weeks helping refugees from Syria, but at the end of his time there he crossed the border into Syria to help critically ill civilians who could not make the journey to the Turko-Syrian border. Khan was arrested 48 hours later and was imprisoned and tortured for thirteen months. I spoke with Abbas Khan's younger sister, Sara, to understand what happened.
Sara says that upon finding out that her brother was missing they contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to help find Abbas Khan. To her dismay the FCO did nothing and the family soon realised that if they wanted to see him again they would have to find him themselves. Due to no diplomatic relations between the UK and Syria, their mother, Fatima Khan, located her son through the unofficial help of the Indian and Russian embassies.
The family were advised by people close to the Syrian political process that if they sent a delegation of UK parliamentarians to Syria to apply pressure their brother had a better chance of being freed. The family did this and President Bashar al-Assad agreed to release Abbas Khan. However, on Monday 16 December, just a few days before her son was going to be freed, Fatima Khan was informed of her son's apparent suicide. Upon questioning officials, Mrs Khan was bluntly told "we killed him, go and tell your British government we've killed him." The family were confused at what had just happened.
But the question is, why was Abbas Khan killed? Sara says "at first I thought it was because my brother had seen a lot of torture, there may have been even more horrific stories to come out, but I think it is an act of defiance against Assad. I think it's a job of the Secret Service, and it may have been that they did not want to heal relationships with the West." Sara makes a good observation. Just a month earlier, the main opposition party, The National Syrian Coalition (Etilaf), agreed to attend the Geneva II Peace Conference with President Assad on the condition that 'access for international relief convoys and agencies to all besieged areas be ensured, and prisoners, especially women and children, be released.' With a month before peace talks it is obvious that there are people within the Syrian regime who will be prepared to sabotage negotiations at any cost. Abbas Khan's death is the clearest indication of this.
With several aid convoys leaving for Syria on a monthly basis it is difficult for many British Muslim aid workers to understand what awaits them. To travel to Syria on humanitarian aid missions is difficult enough, but to know that the British government will do absolutely nothing if anything goes wrong makes it even worse. David Cameron has publicly declared his support to assist the Syrian Coalition in their fight for democracy. This is in stark contrast to his government's disregard towards a young doctor who risked his life to help the war-torn civilians of that same country.
What Sara and her family cannot understand however, is why the Foreign Office "dragged their feet for the past thirteen months", knowing that Abbas Khan could be used as a political pawn. Sara says that her own local MP, Chuka Umunna, was unsupportive about being part of the delegation of parliamentarians and even dissuaded other MPs from going. As citizens of a free and democratic country we strive for justice, with the perceived notion that we will be treated fairly in every situation, and especially when we take our concerns to our local MP. But the story of Abbas Khan has shown that perhaps not everyone is an equal member of society. And in this tragic case where a constituent was tortured by a brutal regime were the family being unreasonable when they expected support from representatives of their country? Sara says "I am most certain that if just that two-minute phone-call were made my brother would still be alive". She breaks down, clearly feeling a sense of abandonment by those who could have been in a position to help.
Yesterday, Abbas Khan's funeral was attended by thousands of Muslims, uniting as one to celebrate his life and in solidarity with the family. Gathering together in such a large number shows what a profound effect his death has had on the community. When I ask Sara what her message to those travelling as part of aid convoys to Syria is, she is clear, "My brother has done something that thousands are scared to do, I definitely don't want his death to be a deterrent for people going to help out in Syria. I want people to remember him as a hero. The people of Syria still need help, somebody has to do something. I'm so glad that convoys are still going". These are brave words from someone who has lost their brother in such harrowing circumstances.
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