Death of White Helmets leader in Istanbul remains a mystery

Turkish authorities have been continuing their investigation into the death of the British ex-army officer and co-founder of a Syrian emergency rescue service, James Le Mesurier, amid high speculation over the fate of a man whom Russia branded a spy.

The 48-year-old, who founded the Mayday Rescue group that helped train the Syrian White Helmets, was found dead in a street in downtown Istanbul on Monday. A post-mortem examination established that he had suffered a fractured skull and legs, 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, but behind the “bare facts surrounding the death lie a host of unanswered questions, not to mention a growing sense that something about this awful tragedy simply doesn't add up,” British tabloid the Sun said on Tuesday. 

Le Mesurier had apparently fallen from the balcony of his second-floor flat in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, the Sun said. He had been taking anti-depressants and medication to treat severe stress, according to his wife.

The building is said to be well secured and accessible only via a fingerprint identification system, while footage from a security camera over the front door showed nothing suspicious and no sign of forced entry, the Daily Mail said on Wednesday. 

“There’s a good deal of suspicion it may be murder by a state actor, but others suggest he may have taken his own life,” BBC Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban said on Twitter on Monday. 

“The death is very suspicious,” Le Mesurier’s friend Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, director of non-governmental organisation Doctors Under Fire, told the Sun. “I was with him only a few weeks ago. He seemed fine. The suggestion that he would take his own life would surprise me.”

Le Mesurier and his wife Emma Winberg, a director at Mayday, moved to Turkey four years ago. Since then attempts to discredit the White Helmets have been “incessant”, said Hamish.

Russia has long accused the White Helmets of being a project by Western intelligence services to undermine its ally Syrian president Bashar Assad, the Financial Times said on Monday.

On Friday, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman accused Le Mesurier of being a former agent with the British intelligence service MI6.

“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, the Daily Mail said. 

Nevzat Alkan, a Turkish forensic experts told Evrensel newspaper that Le Mesurier’s death seemed liked a murder. 

“(The police) focuses on suicide or murder. Because the person who died is an intelligence agent,” Alkan said. 

The expert said Le Mesurier had fallen from a second-floor flat, not a place high enough to indicate a suicide, adding that findings in his first post-mortem analysis did not support the idea that the British man had taken his own life. 

The Istanbul’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office said on Tuesday that the post-mortem analysis on Le Mesurier’s body was ongoing.