Abbas with his son Abdullah. Abbas’ children Ruqiyah and Abdullah were six and seven when their father left for Syria; they’re eight and nine now. Image Credit: Courtesy: Fatima Khan

Dubai: The mother of Abbas Khan, a British doctor who died in a Syrian prison, has responded to claims from her son’s former cellmates that he was killed for “what he saw” while in jail.

Last week, two men who were in prison with Dr Khan in Syria backed up his family’s explanation that Abbas was killed and did not take his own life as the Syrian government said.

The 32-year-old orthopaedic surgeon from London was taken away by the Intelligence Services and, his cellmates, speaking from Istanbul, said they believed he was killed because of what he had witnessed.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Dr Khan’s mother Fatima has said she’s glad someone has finally spoken in defence of her son.

“It’s good to hear but we’ve known this from the beginning. I understand that these boys feel upset because they saw what it was like in there and could only speak now that they had left Syria,” Mrs Khan said.

“But even if it is true, does that make it alright? Is that some sort of justification for murder? Why? There are many people who saw many things.”

Khan’s mother told Gulf News that she was unaware of her son’s departure to Turkey, where he had been treating injured people on the Syrian border, before eventually entering Syria.

“I am very angry with him still, though he’s dead, because I was not told he was going. He shouldn’t have gone. He should have stayed at the [Turkish] border and not gone into Syria,” she added regretfully.

“When he went, I asked him ‘why?’ He said ‘Mummy, I cannot sit back and watch this any more. I have to do something.’ I told him to send all of his earnings instead of going there himself. I tried my best to make him come back. I said ‘look, we are not Syrian. This is their fight.’ And he replied ‘Mummy, we are human.’ And I had no answer.” Mrs Khan said her son had initially been arrested for not having a visa to enter Syria but the authorities later admitted he was actually held for aiding the injured — who they deemed to be terrorists.

Abbas was helping in four hospitals, tirelessly performing surgery on the severely injured.

“He enjoyed his job, he took pleasure in joining people’s bones, repairing limbs — that was his profession,” Mrs Khan said.

Lonely search

When Dr Khan’s siblings had realised he was missing, they felt compelled to tell their mystified mother. She went immediately and alone to Syria via Beirut in search of her son and found an unrecognisable figure.

“When I arrived he was in a very bad state, he was a skeleton. His weight dropped to five stone and he could barely walk,” she said.

“I used to bribe the officers to take food to him, I would stand hours outside just to give him some food.”

Mrs Khan did not want to rock the boat as she was led to believe Abbas was on the verge of release.

“He was in a torture cell for eight months until I went there. When I got there they eventually put him in the civil prison and I was so happy because I thought they were going to release him. Everybody I talked to at the time said because he was in Addra civil prison, he was in the process of being released.”

However, her hope turned to misery when she learned her son was moved to a maximum security prison with a notorious reputation for executions.

“I came to know on Saturday that they’d moved my son there the day before and I had heard that they take prisoners there to kill them. I begged and pleaded, I asked what he had done wrong for him to have been moved there and they kept reassuring me that everything would be OK.”

But it wouldn’t be.

“On the Monday morning the ministry of justice called me saying: ‘Come [to the prison], we have some good news for you.’ They said ‘today, all your son’s problems will be solved.’ And they were actually calling me to come and see my son’s dead body. That’s how heartless they are,” she sobbed .

“I took a bag full of chocolates to give to the prison guards like I usually did and when they told me that my son was dead, they were eating the chocolates I’d brought for them like nothing had happened.

“I was face-to-face with my son’s killers and I didn’t know what to do.”

Mrs Khan could not bring herself to see her dead son’s body despite mentally preparing herself for the worst.

“I had no courage to see his body, I didn’t want to see him. They started pulling me towards where his body was kept but I didn’t want to follow them because I thought they’d kill me too.”

Her ordeal continued when she returned home and found her son’s body was delayed and not immediately released for repatriation.

“They washed his body with chemicals, they embalmed his body, they didn’t leave any proof or sign of injury.

“But I’m told now that in Syria they don’t even release dead bodies to families now. They just hand out death certificates.”

Abbas’s children Ruqiyah and Abdullah were six and seven when their father left for Syria, they’re eight and nine now and Mrs Khan says the family has not recovered from their loss.

“We are devastated, we are not normal. We will never be normal. Living is more painful to me than death. Because, my son was not a fighter — even since childhood — he was a humanitarian aid worker — is this the reward for doing good in this world?”

Message for Al Assad

Mrs Khan says no further action will truly satisfy her, though she did have a message for the Syrian president.

“Just go! If your people don’t want you, just go! If I was President Al Assad, I would leave and stay in another country. Why stick to power? It’s nothing but stubbornness,” she said.

“Nothing is too late, he should go. The only power he has is the power through killing and that power will not keep you there for long. Let the people decide who they want as ruler, leave the country. Assad should go. If he stays it will be an endless war.

“Nothing will make me happy, but I just want the killing to stop so I want Assad’s regime to fall.”

Fatima Khan in Geneva seeking answers from Syrian politicians