Barely three days after the Kremlin publicly accused him of being an MI6 spy, James Le Mesurier (pictured), a dashing 48-year-old father of two, was found dead in a street in downtown Istanbul
So did he fall, or was he pushed? The death of James Le Mesurier, an ex-Army officer targeted by a Russian smear campaign, couldn’t have been better timed to spark conspiracy theories.
Barely three days after the Kremlin publicly accused him of being an MI6 spy, the dashing 48-year-old father of two was found dead in a street in downtown Istanbul.
He had apparently tumbled from an upstairs window in the middle of the night and was wearing a white shirt, grey trousers, and a wristwatch when his body was spotted by worshippers on their way to a mosque in the Beyoglu district at around 5.30am on Monday.
The scene was next to the ivy-clad five-storey building where Le Mesurier, who helped set up the White Helmets group of volunteer rescue workers in war-torn Syria, had an apartment and office. A post-mortem examination established that he had suffered a fractured skull and legs, according to local reports, while his face appeared to have been cut with a sharp object. The Turkish police promptly started briefing reporters that it was a suspected suicide.
These are the bare facts surrounding the death of the man who founded the Mayday Rescue group that helped train the White Helmets. But behind them lie a host of unanswered questions, not to mention a growing sense that something about this awful tragedy simply doesn’t add up.
Though many details of Le Mesurier’s final hours are unconfirmed, it seems they were spent at Mayday’s office with his wife Emma Winberg, a fellow director of the organisation.
According to local news reports, Miss Winberg told police that Le Mesurier had been taking medication because he was under ‘intense stress’ as a result of the attacks he and his organisation were under.
Mr Le Mesurier had apparently tumbled from an upstairs window in the middle of the night and was wearing a white shirt, grey trousers, and a wristwatch when his body was spotted by worshippers on their way to a mosque in the Beyoglu district at around 5.30am on Monday (pictured, the scene where his body was found)
She reportedly told detectives that she and James went to bed at around 4am on Monday, having both taken sleeping pills. She was woken by knocking on the door and discovered that her husband was lying on the street surrounded by police.
The building is said to be well secured and accessible only via a fingerprint identification system. Footage from a security camera over the front door showed nothing suspicious and no sign of forced entry, leading police to conclude that it was suicide. Some are not so sure, pointing out that – among other things – on the first and second floors overlooking the death scene the windows are heavily barred and impossible to exit. On the third floor the windows are too small. Only on the fourth floor is there a potential exit route: a row of three windows overlooking a shallow sloping roof some 6ft wide.
Among those who speculate on Russian involvement, there are echoes of other sudden deaths involving journalists, lawyers and aid workers who have crossed the Kremlin and ended up falling – or being thrown – from high windows.
Maksim Borodin, a Russian journalist who had exposed state corruption and highlighted the work of Russian mercenaries in Syria, died last year after allegedly tumbling from his balcony in the city of Yekaterinburg. Twelve months earlier, Nikolai Gorokhov, lawyer for the family of Sergei Magnitsky – who died in jail in 2009 after exposing massive tax fraud by government officials – fell from a fourth-storey window. The authorities alleged, apparently with a straight face, that he’d been trying to move a bathtub.
These are the bare facts surrounding the death of the man who founded the Mayday Rescue group that helped train the White Helmets (pictured). But behind them lie a host of unanswered questions
In 2007, Ivan Safronov, who was investigating the sale of Russian arms to Iran and Syria, plunged from a fifth-floor window (it was ruled a suicide) and two years later Olga Kotovskaya, a broadcaster who had tangled with the government, fell from a 14th floor window in another incident ruled a suicide.
At least one Briton has met a similar fate. In 2014, property developer Scott Young, who was allegedly indebted to shadowy Russian mafia figures, died after falling four storeys from his London penthouse and being impaled on iron railings.
It is perhaps little wonder that Le Mesurier’s friends and colleagues in the human rights field smell a rat.
Amnesty International yesterday called for an ‘exhaustive’ police inquiry into Le Mesurier’s death saying: ‘Given the long history of smears and accusations made against Le Mesurier and the White Helmets, the possibility of foul play must surely form part of the Turkish authorities’ investigation into his death.’
It may seem strange to hear that a body with such noble objectives as the White Helmets should have become the subject of so many slanderous attacks. To understand why, one must wind the clock back five years, to Le Mesurier’s decision to found non-profit Mayday Rescue to train and equip volunteers working to save the lives of civilians caught up in Syria’s bloody civil war.
According to local news reports, Le Mesurier’s wife Emma Winberg (pictured) told police that Le Mesurier had been taking medication because he was under ‘intense stress’ as a result of the attacks he and his organisation were under
At the time, almost no international aid organisations were able to access the worst affected areas to provide medical aid or assist rescue efforts.
Deeply moved by reports of their fate, Le Mesurier, who since leaving the Army in 2000 had been working as a private security contractor, collaborated with Turkish earthquake volunteers to turn roughly 20 Syrians – including a banker, a baker, several students and a tailor – into a fully trained rescue team. The group returned to their native country and began saving lives. Though formally named Syrian Civil Defence, they became universally known as the White Helmets because of their protective headgear.
More than 2,900 male and female volunteers have been trained and equipped by Mayday, which is funded by the UN and a number of foreign governments and has offices in Turkey and Amsterdam. Their work, on the front line of perhaps the most vicious recent conflict, has seen 252 White Helmets killed and around 500 injured. They claim to have saved more than 100,000 lives.
In the West, this work has won widespread plaudits. A Netflix documentary about the rescue workers, The White Helmets, won an Oscar in 2017, while the organisation was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.
But while Le Mesurier’s volunteers have saved lives on both sides of Syria’s civil war, their work in rebel-held areas has sparked vigorous criticism from President Assad and his backers, which include Russia. They have long accused the White Helmets of supporting terrorist groups and, to quote some trolls discussing Le Mesurier’s death on Twitter yesterday, being a ‘fake humanitarian group’ of ‘pro-jihadist twits’.
The organisation has been accused of staging air and artillery strikes for the cameras and faking chemical attacks. After the Oscar win, Russia’s embassy in the UK tweeted: ‘They are actors serving an agenda, not rescuers.’
In this image taken from file video, showing James Le Mesurier, founder and director of Mayday Rescue, talks to the media during training exercises in southern Turkey, March 19, 2015. Known officially as Syria Civil Defence, the White Helmets are a voluntary search-and-rescue group formed to respond to bombings by Syrian government forces
Police officers and members of the public outside Mr Le Mesurier’s home on Monday morning
As the public face of the White Helmets, Le Mesurier has therefore been at the centre of virulent criticism. On Friday Russia’s foreign ministry claimed that the White Helmets help ‘the most dangerous terrorist groups’ arguing that Le Mesurier was a ‘former agent of Britain’s MI6, who has been spotted all around the world’.
Within three days, he was dead.
Miss Winberg, who according to Turkish news reports is a 39-year-old Swedish citizen, allegedly told officers on Monday that her husband had confided 15 days before his death that he’d been experiencing suicidal thoughts.
In addition to suffering deeply unsettling personal attacks from Russia and online, Le Mesurier is rumoured to have become concerned about Mayday’s financial situation, fearing that the non-profit group would run out of cash to support the families of White Helmets who had been killed or seriously injured in action.
A friend, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who served alongside him both in the Army and in advising NGOs in Syria, said yesterday that worries about his personal security were also causing stress. He told the Mail that when they spoke last month, Le Mesurier said the White Helmets were looking to move their HQ from Istanbul.
‘It was generally about security concerns, especially when it came to communications,’ he said. ‘James did think that some of the normal communications, like Whatsapp and Twitter, were being compromised. He thought they were not leakproof. They were very conscious about this and changing modus operandi for communications on a regular basis.’
Le Mesurier has left behind many grieving friends, some of whom have placed flowers at the scene since Monday.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, General Sir Nick Carter said: ‘[James] was one of my most important staff officers when I was the commanding officer of a battalion of Green Jackets in Bosnia and Kosovo.
‘He was a very generous person and someone who always saw the very best in people. The glass was always half full in his outlook.’
Last night Mr de Bretton Gordon spoke for many when he said of Le Mesurier’s death: ‘There are too many people who have issues with the Russians who fall off balconies for it not to be investigated fully.’