This is the engrossing story of Cyril Karabus’s fight to prove his innocence and secure his release from jail in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he was confined for nine months. It also lifts the lid on all the extraordinary behind-the-scenes attempts and maneuvers to free the doctor. The shock of being arrested at the Dubai airport was almost too much for the ailing 77-year-old Professor Cyril Karabus, a world-renowned pediatric oncologist en route home to Cape Town with his wife and family after attending his son’s wedding in Toronto. Without his knowledge, Karabus had been tried in absentia in 2004 in Abu Dhabi and found guilty of manslaughter for the death of a three-year-old Yemeni girl who had died from acute myeloblastic leukemia. Karabus had served a locum in the UAE when the death occurred. Charges were trumped up against him by the child’s father, who demanded blood money—which, according to Sharia law, is only payable after a criminal conviction—despite the fact that the girl was not even Karabus’s patient. The “Free Professor Karabus” campaign involved boycotts of Dubai-based medical conferences, public protests, website petitions, and fundraisers to help meet the professor’s legal expenses. The South African and World Medical Associations both plunged headlong into the fight on his behalf, as did the South African Department of International Relations and Co-operation. The book recounts these efforts and more of the international effort to prove that Karabus committed no crime and help him regain his freedom.
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About the Author
Suzanne Belling has worked for the Cape Times and the South African Jewish Times. She is the editor in chief of R & J Publications, founding editor of the Johannesburg Jewish Voice, and managing editor of the South African Jewish Report. She is the author of The Travelling Rabbi: My African Tribe.
Read an Excerpt
The Cyril Karabus Story
By Suzanne Belling
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2014 Suzanne Belling
All rights reserved.
'Murderer, murderer!' shrieked a solitary man running diagonally across the vast, empty concourse at Dubai airport.
World-renowned South African paediatric oncologist Professor Cyril Karabus, then 77, was stopped in his tracks – literally and figuratively. The man, as if participating in an Olympic race, made straight for the doctor. It was 6.30 pm on Saturday, 18 August 2012, and Cyril and his wife, Jenifer (known as Jen), were about the only disembarking passengers left going through passport control in the modern mausoleum.
Eyeballing Cyril, the man raised his voice, shattering the prevailing stillness, and boomed, 'You are a murderer! You are under arrest. Come with me ...'
'Pardon me, there must be a case of mistaken identity.' The professor managed to retain his dignity and his softly spoken demeanour.
'You are Cyril Karabus, the doctor?' asked the man, taking a cursory look at Cyril's passport. 'You are wanted by Interpol.'
'But I didn't murder anyone. I have never committed a crime in my life,' Cyril managed to splutter, as he was led away.
Jen was having none of it. Fearing nobody and never short of words, she demanded, 'Who are you?'
'I am police,' the man deigned to reply in broken English. As he was wearing a lounge suit there was nothing to indicate that he had any official status.
'What is your name?' she persisted.
'I am police,' was all he offered brusquely. He then confiscated all Cyril's belongings and the couple's luggage, permitting his captive only a small brown bag containing a few personal belongings, including a toothbrush.
'It was totally surreal,' Jen told her family afterwards. But she had the presence of mind to slip her husband a credit card in case he needed money. Not in her wildest dreams did she anticipate how much money he would need.
The airport ambush took on a Kafkaesque quality, which continued throughout the nine months of Cyril's incarceration in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
A couple of hours after Cyril was accosted by the mysterious 'policeman', he was put in a nine-square-metre airless room – the holding cell at the airport. Jen was led into what she calls 'a pit in a passage'. She was left alone, for hours on end, with nothing to do but watch a group of Arabs through the doorway drinking coffee.
After what seemed to her to be an eternity, the same 'policeman' put her into a kind of shuttle that resembled a golf cart and sent her to the hotel where she and Cyril had reservations.
Unbeknown to her, after midnight Cyril was bundled into a police van. There was no bed for the elderly, respected professor who suffered from angina, had a stent in one of his coronary arteries, and a pacemaker. He spent the night on a bench in a Dubai holding cell. He was bewildered and, although myriad thoughts ran through his brain, he couldn't imagine what had precipitated his predicament. In keeping with his calm, philosophical nature, he decided to wait it out until he could contact the South African Embassy in the UAE.
Meanwhile, alone in the hotel room, Jen was reeling with shock. She was confused, her cellphone had no roaming facility and her attempts to send text messages were futile. Her phone appeared to have gone on the blink. She didn't know at which hotel her paediatrician daughter Dr Sarah Karabus and her family were staying. She had not asked, as she had assumed they would all meet at the airport the following day to board the flight back to Cape Town.
Without any knowledge of the drama unfolding a short distance away, Sarah, her husband Gavin Morris and their two children Noah and Ella had already checked into another Dubai hotel, having passed through customs without any hitches.
The rest of the Karabus children had returned to their homes – Judith and Eitan Zlotorynski, to London; Deborah Karabus, a senior credit risk analyst, and Michael Karabus, a telecommunications project manager, to Cape Town; while just-married Matthew and Bonita Karabus remained in Canada after their wedding – the reason for the entire family's trip and stopover in Dubai.
It was like being sent from heaven to purgatory. 'Down the rabbit hole, I felt like Alice in a hateful wonderland and I was wondering when I would awaken to find it was all a bad dream,' Jen recalls.
Her mind was whirling during those lonely, dark hours. It took her back to Toronto, where Matt and Bonita were married under a traditional Jewish chuppah at a yacht club. Jen thought of Matt, her nonconformist son, who insisted on being 'himself' at the wedding and wore shorts (a stylish pair, at least). Jen and her daughters were dressed in summer finery. The bride was the picture of radiance and beauty in traditional white; little Ella, Sarah's daughter, looked like a miniature bride in a white dress with capped sleeves. Her brother Noah imitated his uncle, the groom, in beige linen shorts. Cyril had dressed smartly, but casually, in long trousers.
Jen recalled the joy of family togetherness. The untraditional wedding reception fare included a typical South African meal – boerewors, braai meat, mealies, biltong and chops. They had danced till they dropped. Then, instead of the usual honeymoon, Matt and Bonita treated the immediate family to a week's vacation in a holiday home at an Ontario resort.
It felt like a world away. With no one around to help, Jen resolved to wait till before dawn on the Sunday morning, when they had been due to board the Emirates flight to South Africa. At the allotted time, she was transported back to the airport in a shuttle. 'They wouldn't let me stay, even though I had a British passport,' Jen recalls.
Cyril, in his independent reverie, had misgivings. He remembered – alas, too late – being told by the Emirates airline clerk at the desk in Toronto that there appeared to be a security alert against his name and that he could only be given a visa to Dubai, but could not travel on to South Africa. When he'd pressed for details, the clerk excused herself to ask her manager what the problem was. She had returned a little later, announcing that everything was in order and that it was fine to board the flight.
'If only I had known what awaited me, I would have remained in transit, instead of disembarking in Dubai,' says Cyril, who regretted this decision over and over again during his long days of incarceration.
When Jen met up with her family, the first thing Sarah said was, 'Where's Dad?'
Jen tried to be upbeat. 'He's in the nick!' she replied, using the slang for jail she had learnt during her years of upbringing in Southampton, England.
Sarah and Gavin thought she was joking, until Cyril didn't appear from the restrooms or one of the airport shops. Then the frantic calls and SMSs began.
It was the middle of the night in South Africa. The first calls were to Matthew Karabus in Canada. He awoke his sister Deborah, who frantically phoned Michael ('Bags') Bagraim, a Cape Town lawyer, community leader and relative of the Karabus family through his wife Patsy. Bags became pivotal to the entire Free Cyril Karabus campaign. He was an angel in the guise of a larger-than-life public figure in the South African community.
While he is noted for his resolution of endless cases in labour law ('I had never handled anything like this before'), the phone call was the starting point of Bags's venture into PR and of giving up his lucrative law practice for six months to resolve what he believed was a travesty of justice.
Once alerted, Matt, who is also a lawyer, was horrified. His campaign directed at the Canadian government and health authorities, while delving into the intricacies of Sharia law (Muslim religious law that applies in the Emirates), began almost immediately.
Judith Karabus, a journalist, tells the story in her own words:
'It was a few days after my return to London, late Sunday evening, 19 August. Eitan and I were rushing from the Underground, hoping to get off the train and onto the escalators before everyone who had spent the day in Central London had crammed themselves onto the stairs. As we got closer to the surface, my phone began ringing, but I was juggling a million bags, a soda and my tube ticket. I decided to speak to whoever it was when I arrived home.
'Both my sister Sarah and my mom had been trying to contact me. This I already noticed as we arrived outside the tube to catch the bus that would take us back to our flat. When I refreshed the e-mail on my phone, I noticed that my mother had sent several panicked messages. My heart sank ... It was pounding, my mind was racing. I had a hundred questions to ask and no one had the answers to most of them. No one knew where they had taken my father. We didn't know why he had been arrested or the charges against him ...'
Jen, Sarah, Gavin, Noah and Ella boarded the flight, ever mindful of the empty seat which had been designated for Cyril. Jen was then informed that her luggage and Cyril's cases had been offloaded – to be searched. She was promised they would be forwarded to her home in Cape Town. Small comfort, but at least the luggage arrived on her doorstep the morning after returning home.
The senior Karabuses had been booked on the flight from Canada with their eldest daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren to assist with the little ones, who needed a couple of extra pairs of hands to alleviate their boredom and help with caring for them on the long journey.
But Gaga's was the only extra pair of hands on the interminable and anxious flight back to Cape Town. Grandpa's were destined for shackles ...CHAPTER 2
The jail in the desert
Jen, Sarah, Gavin and the children were already en route to Cape Town when Cyril was permitted a call to the South African Embassy from Dubai. He spoke to Joseph Peres, a senior member of the embassy staff who promised to investigate what charges he was facing.
On Monday, 20 August, Cyril was again shoved into a police van and transferred from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, where he spent the night in what he terms a hokkie – a tiny hovel which formed part of the Khalifa A prison. 'My cellmates were a Pakistani psychologist and a Syrian busybody who was charged for renting out villas at exorbitant prices,' says Cyril.
The following day, Cyril was transferred to Khaladiya police station and prison, also in Abu Dhabi. During his two-hour journey to the island city, he had racked his brains trying to remember if there was anything untoward he had done while serving locums in the UAE, but his mind was blank. Not only is he a punctiliously law-abiding individual, but his medical colleagues around the world can – and did – attest to his ethics and unfailingly high level of competency.
He had scarcely noticed the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the glitzy, deceptively appearing, Western-type metropolises with their tower blocks and shopping malls, which draw tourists from all over the globe. Even the sandy scrub, resembling Cyril's native Karoo (he was born in the picturesque and historical town of Beaufort West), was a blur, as were the desert-like conditions which prevail in the wake of the high-rise urban development that defines the Emirati cities.
According to a young South African couple who lived in Abu Dhabi for four years until 2012: 'It's kind of gleaming ... there are lots of modern buildings and the landscape changes every few years because of new highways and buildings. But it all has to be staffed by foreigners because most of the Emiratis don't have the expertise.'
Although the Emirates are sophisticated today, the story goes that 50 years ago the inhabitants were goatherds and pearl divers. Then, with the discovery of oil, they struck it rich and are now overrun by expatriates, who form more than 80 per cent of the population.
But on his way to Abu Dhabi, even though his view of developments from the police van was limited, Cyril, in his state of shock, hardly noticed the changes that had taken place since he served his last locum in the city some 10 years earlier. He was preoccupied with his own situation.
On Tuesday, 21 August, he again spoke to Joseph Peres at the SA Embassy, who told him that the embassy's corporate services manager, Hendrik Stephanus (Fanus) Venter, would visit him at the prison. His chest began to tighten in anticipation of what the visit would reveal. At six in the evening, Fanus arrived.
'He couldn't open the door, so we had to shout through a sort of plastic panel with little holes in it. There were a lot of Arabs making a noise, but they tried to quieten us. The bloody chutzpah! The din was unbelievable and we had to make ourselves heard above it. But we didn't want them to know what we were talking about, so we spoke in Afrikaans,' recalls Cyril.
Having lived in a predominantly Afrikaans town until he was 15, when his family settled in Cape Town, Cyril had become totally fluent in what was then the second official language of South Africa and is now one of its 11 official languages.
The news from Fanus shocked Cyril to the core. He had been tried in absentia in 2004 for the death of a three-year-old Yemeni girl, Sara Al Ajailly, who had died after suffering from acute myeloblastic leukaemia – and he had been found guilty of manslaughter and forgery.
A combination of Sharia, civil and criminal law exists in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Under Sharia law, one who is found to have caused the death or injury of another – even if this be accidental – is obliged to pay blood money (diya) as compensation to the family. The amount is determined according to the circumstances.
Blood money is viewed as both a punishment of the offender and an acknowledgement of the rights of the victim's family, and is granted automatically, without the family having to sue for it. This is a far cry from Western law, where injured parties are free to sue and where medical malpractice suits are usually civil cases.
In the Emirates, compensation is granted by a judge who oversees criminal proceedings. If the accused is convicted, the judge awards blood money when pronouncing sentence. (Even then, there is a discrepancy between males and females, with the latter usually being awarded half the amount of damages.) Convicting Cyril was the only way blood money could be made payable to little Sara's family.
The entire case against Cyril appears to have been based on the eagerness of the girl's father, Adel Abdulla Mohammed, to make someone pay for the death of his child. In order to obtain the blood money, he relied on 'evidence' from what were ostensibly hospital records, as well as the testimony of a poorly qualified Filipina nurse, Rillin de Liola, who might well have felt that her continued employment at the hospital depended on her giving an 'appropriate' account. She never did appear in court. Her entire story was hearsay. Some suspect that she was coerced, even bribed, to put forward her version of the story.
Looking back on his ordeal, Cyril recalls what led him to do locums in the Emirates in the first place:
'In the 1990s, Glynn Wessels, a paediatric oncologist at Tygerberg Hospital in the Western Cape, had been contacted by Gert Kirsten, a colleague working in the Emirates, to find a locum for him.
'I agreed because we really needed the extra income. So I decided to use up some of my accumulated leave – at that stage, I was still working at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in the paediatric oncology department. I went back to the UAE three or four times to do locums, the last being in 2002, when I'd been retired for two years on a meagre pension,' he explains.
'The 2002 locum was at the Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre, when I filled in for Dr Lourens de Jager, another South African. The child Sara, may she rest in peace, had an obstructed left middle cerebral artery and possible disseminated intravascular thrombosis. She had a fever, so she may have had septicaemia and she was bleeding. The chances of survival in those days were about 10 per cent. Sara also had not come into remission on chemotherapy, which she had commenced in June under the other doctor. When I took over her treatment in the middle of September, she still had not come into remission, which is a bad sign for eventual cure. Her bone marrow still showed evidence of leukaemia, so we continued with chemotherapy. But she died on 19 October.'
There was, as Cyril terms her, 'this bloody unqualified nurse', who was quoted in the court report as having informed Sara's father about the child's death four days before she actually died! Cyril says, 'Although she was quoted by the father, the nurse never gave evidence in the court case, of which I knew nothing. They were supposed to have sent me papers to my last known address in Abu Dhabi, informing me of the charge. I knew nothing about this either. The hospital also had my Kenilworth, Cape Town, address on record, but I didn't hear a thing and remained totally unaware of the drama being played out in my absence. Nobody told me a thing. It was also a lie that Dr De Jager had testified against me. He never appeared in court, nor [did he say I had] erred in the treatment.'
Excerpted from Blood Money by Suzanne Belling. Copyright © 2014 Suzanne Belling. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
2. The jail in the desert,
3. Bid for blood money,
4. A stoic in shackles,
5. Bail granted!,
6. 'Free the Prof.',
7. Nemesis of justice,
8. Waking to a nightmare,
9. Strange bedfellows,
10. Wheels within wheels,
11. In the public domain,
12. Hyperbole and the hypothetical,
13. 'Bring him home',
14. The doctors' diagnosis,
15. Cyril's 'gynae',
16. Viva, Karabus, viva!,
18. Cat in the flat,
19. Kafkaesque court,
20. Justice delayed is justice denied,
21. Foreign affairs,
22. Knight in shining armour,
23. Cape doctor,