[Marxism] A British Doctor’s Death in Syria, and His Mother’s Quest for Justice
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 5 08:48:37 MST 2014
(It deeply troubles me that after reading this article, most
"anti-imperialist" supporters of Bashar al-Assad will likely stay the
NY Times Feb. 5, 2014
A British Doctor’s Death in Syria, and His Mother’s Quest for Justice
By ANNE BARNARD
GENEVA — Determined to find her son, Fatima Khan flew to Damascus from
Britain last summer, traveling alone for the first time in her 57 years.
A surgeon, he had disappeared months before while treating patients in
war-ravaged northern Syria.
Mrs. Khan cold-called embassies, ministries, judges and jailers, and
finally tracked down her son, Abbas, in a Syrian government prison,
starved and scarred, but alive.
She visited him weekly. She plied officials with chocolates, vowed to
praise them around the world if they showed mercy, even got down on the
floor and kissed their feet.
She eventually won promises that Dr. Khan, 32, would be released. But on
Dec. 20, when she went to pick him up, security officials instead
offered to show her his corpse. He had hanged himself with his pajamas,
But another official, Mrs. Khan said, imparted a more sinister message.
“We killed your son; he came to kill my son,” she said the official had
told her. “We gave him a chance to prove his innocence, and he failed.
Your son was a terrorist. Go back and tell your British government not
to send any more.”
Now, Mrs. Khan’s odyssey has become a quest for public accountability,
from a government that she contends killed her son. His only offense,
she says, was treating Syrians in rebel-held areas — a crime, in the
When Syrian officials arrived here for peace talks, two of Mrs. Khan’s
children, Sara and Shah Khan, were waiting. They approached officials
who had made promises to their mother. The officials refused to talk, so
Mrs. Khan flew in and stood outside their lakeside hotel.
“Why they killed him, sir?” she asked, as men in suits walked by with
barely a glance. Her voice rose, laden with grief and anger, in a plea
captured on video: “Tell me why they killed my son! He was a
humanitarian aid worker!”
“I declare my war against them single-handedly,” Mrs. Khan said later.
“What they did not anticipate is that the mother will not sit quiet.
They were running from me, afraid of me. But no one is denying. They are
The Geneva talks produced little progress on the war, but for the Khans,
they offered a new chance to publicize their case, which the family
contends was long ignored by their own government. They say that British
officials, like their Syrian counterparts, suspected Dr. Khan, a Sunni
Muslim, of being one of the many Sunni British jihadists fighting
alongside rebels in Syria.
Yet there was nothing in Dr. Khan’s past to suggest that, his brother
Shah said. If his family were white or non-Muslim, Shah Khan said, he
doubted it would have been asked to “prove a negative.”
“In Syria, we were too British,” he said, in a genteel British accent
that matched his suit and buttoned-up sweater vest. “In Britain, we were
Diplomats in Damascus had told Mrs. Khan that her son might have
survived had he been a citizen of India, a country the Syrian government
considers friendly, or if senior British officials had intervened.
But British officials, Shah Khan said, evinced little sense of urgency,
even when he insisted his brother was not motivated by political or
religious ideology, but by a sense that Syria’s humanitarian crisis was
the whole world’s responsibility.
“One of my sisters is Shiite,” Shah Khan added. “So it’s not like we’re
some sort of sectarian chaps.”
Growing up in London, Dr. Khan had long dreamed of helping victims of
conflict, an aspiration instilled by his parents, self-made Indian
immigrants who urged their children never to forget their modest roots.
Launch media viewer
Dr. Abbas Khan died in December in a government jail after working with
aid organizations there.
Dr. Khan first helped Syrian refugees in southern Turkey with two aid
organizations, including I.H.H., the Turkish group known for organizing
an aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip that was raided by the Israeli military.
In November 2012, he traveled to Aleppo, where many doctors have fled
and hospitals lie in ruins. On his first day, he told his family, he
performed 20 procedures. Then he disappeared.
For months, there was no trace. His family feared he had been captured
by the radical jihadist groups that have targeted foreign aid workers.
“I was panicking that those people had him, and yet I was always being
asked if he was one of them,” Shah Khan said.
Facing nothing but dead ends, Mrs. Khan flew to Damascus to find Dr.
Khan, beginning a searing emotional journey she described as veering
from hope to disaster.
She says she spent more than $40,000 on bribes and tips, and finally
learned that Dr. Khan had been detained by security services. He was
held at a branch of the air force intelligence agency, where, government
opponents say, political prisoners are routinely tortured.
But officials said there was no reason to hold him, and he was
transferred to a “rehabilitation prison” in Adra, north of Damascus.
When Mrs. Khan found her son, he weighed barely 70 pounds, and his limbs
were scarred with burns from cigarette butts and electric shocks.
Speaking in Urdu, Dr. Khan told her that he had been tortured, been
forced to beat other prisoners and, in a crowded and dirty cell, nearly
died of an infection before trading his sandals to a guard for antibiotics.
“This is nothing,” he said. Others had suffered far worse.
Mrs. Khan stayed on, washing one of her two saris each day and moving to
a cheap hotel near a shrine to Rokaya, a revered Muslim figure for whom
one of Dr. Khan’s two young children is named. She prayed there daily,
and cleaned the floor in a kind of offering. Syrian vegetable sellers
came to know her, and whispered sympathy, declaring that stories like
her son’s were the reason for their revolt.
Dr. Khan gained weight, taught English to fellow prisoners and was
looking forward to going home. But then he was taken to another security
facility. Officials reassured Mrs. Khan that he was merely having an
exit interview. She labeled boxes of sweets to give to various officials
in thanks for their help.
Security officials picked her up. Laughing and eating her sweets, they
assured Mrs. Khan, “Your son is happier than you are.”
But when they arrived at a security building, officials gave condolences
and offered to take her to see her son’s body. Shocked, she refused.
Confusingly, one doctor said her son was foaming at the mouth and might
still be alive. She demanded they take him to a hospital. “No, he’s
dead,” she was told.
Officials told her that he had hanged himself from a doorknob; in later
interviews, they mentioned a window frame. Forensic evidence is
incomplete; the body was returned embalmed, against the family’s wishes.
Most of Mrs. Khan’s government contacts stopped returning calls. One
told her that they had killed her son “because of your wrong upbringing.”
In Geneva, officials she had met in Damascus, including the deputy
foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, and Bouthaina Shaaban, a presidential
adviser, refused to answer her. The official Syrian news media accused
the opposition of using her for political purposes. To the contrary, she
said, a happy ending to her trip would have made her the government’s
She got just one new explanation, she said. One official, as he walked
away, said her son had entered the country illegally, “a killing offense.”
Mrs. Khan’s daughter had no better luck. A Syrian security guard herded
her away from the officials, she said, and “kept showing me his gun.”
Another Syrian attendant agreed to pass along a letter, Ms. Khan said,
and when she mentioned her brother, he replied, “Oh, he’s the guy who
Shah Khan approached the same man at the United Nations press bar, with
a cameraman. He walked away.
“I’m sorry if I was rude,” Mr. Khan said, with his mild British formality.
“You were rude,” the journalist said.
“When your brother dies,” Mr. Khan replied, “you’ll underst
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