16 Mar 2012

Harley Street doctor under scrutiny for Assad links

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

British officials are investigating whether there is a case for legal action against a Harley Street doctor over his links to his son-in-law, President Assad of Syria.

Dr Fawaz Akhras is the father-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria

This morning’s Guardian newspaper published emails allegedly from the Syrian-born British cardiologist, Dr Fawaz Akhras, apparently offering the Syrian leader advice on handling foreign media coverage of Syria’s uprising, including how to respond to a Channel 4 documentary showing tortured children.

In May last year, the European Union agreed sanctions against Syrian officials involved in “violent repression”, but the sanctions were subsequently widened to include “persons and entities benefiting from or supporting the regime, and natural or legal persons and entities associated with them”.

Dr Akhras, who is 66, cannot avoid being associated with Syria’s president through the marriage of his daughter, Asma. But British officials are investigating whether the doctor’s apparent role in offering the president media advice overstepped a legal threshold of acceptable behaviour.

In December, Akhras wrote to the president, advising him to respond to “Syria’s Torture Machine”, which was about to be broadcast by Channel 4, and suggesting it was British propaganda. He sent the president an article, suggesting it “might be of help towards drafting the embassy’s response to (the) Channel 4 video”.

‘Inhuman attacks’

Earlier that month he had also sent the president and the first lady a list of 13 points rebutting western criticism and claiming it was hypocritical because of “harsh and inhuman attacks on the demonstrators in Wall Street and London”. The UN reckons around 8,000 people have died since Syria’s uprising began a year ago this week.

Channel 4 News tried contacting Dr Akhras several times at his London surgery today, where he appeared for work, but he declined the chance to speak. His secretary said later that he was “involved in a procedure”.

The UK Treasury keeps a list of 114 people targeted by financial sanctions against Syria, and liable to a freeze of UK-based assets.

“The EU lists individuals and entities for their involvement in the violent suppression of protestors, or the funding of, or close association with the regime,” a Treasury spokeswoman said this evening.

UK links

Before officials can consider whether Dr Akhras’ conduct means he qualifies for the sanctions list, officials will have to satisfy themselves that the emails obtained by the Guardian are genuine.

They will also have to decide whether his advice to the president was informal and what would be expected of a father-in-law, or delivered on a regular basis.

The only visible asset Dr Akhras appears to have in the UK is a small pebbledashed family home in west London, where an Arabic newspaper lay by the doormat this morning but the front door remained shut to callers.

Dr Akhras was born in Homs but has a British passport after emigrating in 1973. The publication of his alleged emails to Syria’s president will add to embarrassment amongst British officials who have long felt that the regime’s continuing UK links sit uncomfortably alongside the UK’s attempts to tighten the diplomatic noose.

This evening a Foreign Office official issued this statement: “Where there is clear evidence that an individual is closely linked to or contributing to the violence we will hold them to account for their actions, including consideration of what legal measures may be appropriate.”