LONDON (Reuters) - A British surgeon who was arrested last November within 48 hours of arriving in Syria to volunteer as an emergency doctor has died in jail, his family and a senior British official said on Tuesday.
The family of Abbas Khan, an orthopaedic surgeon from south London who went to Syria to offer his services in rebel-held Aleppo, was told he would be released this week, his brother Afroze Khan told the BBC on Tuesday.
But when his mother went to visit him in prison in Damascus on Monday she was told he had died, he said.
“Syrian authorities have in effect murdered a British national who was in their country to help people,” Hugh Robertson, a minister at the Foreign Office, said in a statement.
The BBC reported that a Syrian government official said Khan, a 32-year-old father of two, had committed suicide. But his brother said that was impossible, given that he was preparing to go home with his mother who had spent the past four months in the Syrian capital to be near her son.
“He was happy and looking forward to being released,” Khan said. “We are devastated, distraught and we are angry at the Foreign Office for dragging their feet for 13 months.”
MP George Galloway, who was due to collect Khan on Friday from the Syrian authorities, agreed it was “inconceivable that he committed suicide”.
The foreign office said it had frequently sought consular access to Khan as well as information on his detention, both directly and through the Russians, Czechs and others. Britain closed its embassy in Damascus in February 2012.
“These requests have consistently been ignored,” it said in a statement early on Tuesday.
Khan said when his mother first arrived in Damascus his brother weighed just 32 kg (70 pounds) and was barely able to walk. In letters Abbas Khan wrote to British Foreign Secretary William Hague, he said he had been tortured in detention and kept in isolated, squalid conditions.
Reuters was not able to reach the Khan family for comment.
Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International’s Syria campaigner in the United Kingdom, said the British government should denounce Khan’s death and ensure that those responsible were brought to justice.
A second Briton, 23-year-old Ifthekar Jaman, was reported to have been killed in Syria at the weekend after joining a rebel extremist group opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
The foreign office said it was aware of the report and was seeking clarification, but added again that its options for supporting Britons in Syria were “extremely limited”.
“We continue to advise against all travel to Syria,” it said.
A partnership of five universities based at King’s College London reported on Tuesday that between 3,300 and 11,000 fighters from more than 70 nations, including a rising number from Western Europe, have joined the struggle in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad.
After security forces repressed peaceful protests against more than 40 years of Assad family rule in 2011, an armed revolt ensued with an increasingly sectarian element.
Well over 100,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes.
Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith and Richa Naidu; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall