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An American Citizen and a British doctor, held in a Syrian prison, make a pact

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a story now of two men who met in a Syrian prison. One of them is an American imprisoned there. And we're about to hear his story for the first time. The other is a British doctor who was on a humanitarian mission. Because it is a story of a Syrian prison, we should warn you that this story, which lasts about seven minutes, includes descriptions of torture. But in that nightmare, the two men grew together and made a pact.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Maybe you've heard of Kevin Dawes. After he was released from a Syrian prison and handed over to U.S. officials in Moscow in 2016, he was headline news.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Syrian government has freed an American freelance photographer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He's identified as Kevin Dawes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We can confirm that a U.S. citizen was released by Syrian authorities.

AMOS: He's not spoken publicly about his ordeal until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

KEVIN DAWES: Hello. Deborah?

AMOS: When I reach him in San Francisco, Kevin Dawes answers from his car.

DAWES: In a parking lot, commensurate with my homeless status - there are actually two turkey vultures here, amazingly enough.

AMOS: Mostly homeless since his release in 2016, he says he struggles with the physical and mental aftermath of horrific torture.

DAWES: I have permanent nerve damage in at least one foot and both my wrists. As far as being permanently disabled, that's a good question. I don't know. Certainly, everything does seem harder.

AMOS: As the Arab Spring unfolded a decade ago, Dawes joined an unofficial band of freelance journalists, adrenaline junkies and medics - first in Libya and then in Syria.

DAWES: I thought I'd show up with a camera and go all the places nobody else did. And indeed, I found I could. I broke many rules and was not well-liked.

AMOS: Professional journalists were wary of him and his changing roles - part-time war photographer, self-taught medic. In an interview with NPR in 2011, he said he fought with rebels for weeks. When the story moved from Libya to Syria, Dawes moved too. In October 2012, he arrived at a Turkish hotel near the Syrian border, lugging a helmet, a bulletproof vest, medical supplies and hope that his luck would hold. A day after crossing into Syria, he disappeared. Soon after, he was listed as missing on the FBI website. Dawes describes his capture at a checkpoint by Syrian regime loyalists. Hooded and handcuffed, he was quickly transferred to a political prison in the Syrian capital.

DAWES: Remember, these cells are all underground. There is no sunlight.

AMOS: Interrogations were cruel and constant.

DAWES: Well, let me see if I can imitate my interrogator.

You are CIA. Who runs you? - he would yell, and then he would beat me.

AMOS: He became an unwilling witness to barbarous treatment inside the Syrian prison system.

DAWES: I saw awful things. I saw them actually torture children. I think they let me see that because they were certain they were going to be able to kill me.

AMOS: He wasn't the only foreigner held in a Syrian prison. A few months after he was nabbed, a British citizen, Dr. Abbas Khan, was detained 48 hours after he crossed into Syria. Khan, an orthopedic surgeon and father of two, was moved by the plight of injured Syrian children, says his sister, Sara Khan.

SARA KHAN: Syria was kind of the talk at that time.

AMOS: She says her brother worked in a Turkish border hospital but then decided to cross into Syria to work in a rebel field hospital in the winter of 2012.

KHAN: He got in on November 20, and he was then obviously arrested on November 22. But within those 48 hours, I think he worked at four different field hospitals.

AMOS: Khan was also moved to Damascus, to a military prison. And that's where he met Kevin Dawes.

DAWES: We met each other when we were in adjacent cells. We able to speak to each other under the door. They would scald him with hot water and beat him. They did the same to me.

AMOS: These two desperate prisoners who could only whisper in the dark made a pact. Whoever got out first would get news out of the one left behind.

DAWES: The Syrians were concealing the fact they were holding me at all.

AMOS: Sara Khan picks up the story.

When did you hear about Kevin Dawes? When did you know that he was in the picture?

KHAN: That was when my mother flew out to Damascus in July.

AMOS: In 2012, Fatima Khan was determined to find her son. And remarkably, she did. She was allowed to talk to him in person and even observe his court hearings. On Kevin Dawes, Sara Khan says her brother kept his word. He insisted his mother alert the U.S. Embassy. Suddenly, Dawes' treatment improved. The torture stopped.

DAWES: They put me in a lit cell, as opposed to the pitch-black lice dungeon I had been kept in until then. I owe Abbas a lot.

AMOS: But Khan's treatment only got worse. In December 2013, Khan's mother was invited to Syria. Officials assured her her son would be released and home soon. Sara got updates by phone.

KHAN: She's bought gifts for everybody - flowers. You've got biscuits, chocolates, everything. A man comes out in a white lab coat and says to her, I need to give you my condolences. And she's like, I don't understand. And they're like, your son killed himself this morning.

AMOS: Syrian government officials insisted Khan was depressed and had hanged himself, which made no sense to Dawes.

DAWES: In these cells, there's no way to hang yourself. There is nothing to hang yourself on. He had no reason to commit suicide - no reason to. He was going home.

AMOS: Khan's body was eventually shipped back to Britain, where an official inquest concluded that Abbas Khan had been killed by the Syrian regime. Dawes was released three years after Khan died. In October, Dawes filed suit against the Syrian government in a U.S. district court in Washington, D.C. He's alleging torture and mistreatment. The Syrian government hasn't responded to the lawsuit, nor to NPR's request for comment.

But even with no response, Dawes is still eligible for compensation from a U.S. fund set up in 2015. It's the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, says his lawyer, Kirby Behre.

KIRBY BEHRE: So it's created an opportunity for the victims of this horrible, horrible, nightmarish treatment to actually get some compensation for what they suffered.

AMOS: The Khan family plans legal action, too, against the Syrian regime in a British court. And they now have a key witness.

DAWES: I am his last witness. I know he was tortured. I can tell them all about the prison we were in.

KHAN: Kevin's testimony is the only one that we have, in terms of actually somebody seeing him or hearing him being interrogated.

AMOS: Kevin Dawes, drawn to the Middle East to launch a journalism career, will finally have his most important reporting role in a U.S. and a British court.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCOEUR'S "STAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.