Ex British Army officer killed himself after Russia smear campaign

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Ex British Army officer killed himself after Russia smear campaign

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A former British Army officer who trained White Helmets volunteers in Syria and died in mysterious circumstances in Istanbul last year was not murdered in an elaborate plot but took his own life, a BBC probe has found.

James Le Mesurier, 48, who served in Northern Ireland and Kosovo, threw himself off the roof of his Istanbul flat when he became the target of a Russian smear campaign.

Concerns about foul play emerged amid fears that he might have killed by Russian assassins. But his widow Emma Winberg said anxiety about the smears combined with allegations of financial wrong-doing had proved too much.

She described the horror of waking up on November 11 last year to find his side of the bed empty. She went to the window and saw the body of her husband on the cobbled street below. 

Emma said that because his group treated casualties in rebel-held parts of Syria, he became a target for a pro-Assad disinformation campaign, with Russian trolls falsely accusing him of being an MI6 spy with terrorist connections. 

Speaking to a new BBC podcast, Emma said: ‘The disinformation did have an impact. It caused anxiety. It really beat down his confidence. 

‘The scale and complexity of the thing, number of haters we had who wanted to tear it down. All of these anxieties, all of these concerns, they set the stage.’

Le Mesurier, left, and his wife Emma Winberg, right, pose happily before his tragic death

One of the last pictures of James Le Mesurier taken before he plunged to his death

One of the last pictures of James Le Mesurier taken before he plunged to his death

A White Helmets volunteer trained by Le Mesurier's team rescues a baby from a bombed building in al-Bab, near Aleppo, Syria, in October 2020

A White Helmets volunteer trained by Le Mesurier’s team rescues a baby from a bombed building in al-Bab, near Aleppo, Syria, in October 2020

Le Mesurier fell from the circled ledge. His death came a week after Russia accused him of being an MI6 spy

Le Mesurier fell from the circled ledge. His death came a week after Russia accused him of being an MI6 spy 

New footage obtained by MailOnline shows the well-loved former Royal Green Jackets officer happily blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, 18 months before the steady decline in his mental health that led to his death. 

Le Mesurier was targeted by the Kremlin because he set up Mayday Rescue, an organisation that helped train and equip the White Helmets, a group of volunteers, who rescued civilians in parts of Syria that opposed Assad.

Rescue workers filmed their operations on helmet cameras and posted them online. Much of the footage appeared to provide evidence of war crimes, enraging Assad and Putin.

Mystery surrounded Le Mesurier's death as Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad accused the CIA and 'Western intelligence' of murder - though the BBC has supported the view that he committed suicide

Mystery surrounded Le Mesurier’s death as Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad accused the CIA and ‘Western intelligence’ of murder – though the BBC has supported the view that he committed suicide 

In response, Syrian and Russian trolls characterised the White Helmets as a fake humanitarian organisation created by the West to turn the world against the Assad regime.

Le Mesurier was at the heart of Moscow’s disinformation campaign. One Syrian expert said he had faced ‘unimaginable pressure and targeting’.

A week before his death, an official at Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused him on Twitter of being an MI6 spy with ‘connections to terrorist groups’ such as Al-Qaeda.

The humanitarian worker had also been under immense stress from false accusations of financial wrongdoing from within his own organisation. He had taken sleeping pills and gone to bed at 4am on the day he killed himself.

His mysterious death was treated as a suicide by the Turkish authorities. But this did not prevent some sources suggesting that he may have been the latest of Putin’s enemies to be killed by Russian assassins, who have a reputation for throwing their foes from high windows. 

The major 10-part BBC podcast, Mayday: Investigating The Life And Death Of James Le Mesurier, released this week, which investigated every aspect of his sudden death, concluded that Le Mesurier had been driven to suicide however.  

The podcast heard from colleagues and security specialists who confirmed that his apartment was secure at the time of his death, and his body showed no signs of a struggle.

The series, which can be downloaded in its entirety, also found that Le Mesurier was entirely innocent of the smears levelled against him. 

Le Mesurier, right, poses with his wife Emma Winberg, left, and his dog in Istanbul

Le Mesurier, right, poses with his wife Emma Winberg, left, and his dog in Istanbul

Le Mesurier, a former Army officer, helped train and support the White Helmets in Syria

Le Mesurier's grieving widow Emma Winberg, pictured in Istanbul, gave a three-hour statement to Turkish police, who did not allow her to leave Turkey as they probed his death

Le Mesurier, a former Army officer, helped train and support the White Helmets in Syria

Chloe Hadjimatheou, the BBC presenter behind the series, told MailOnline: ‘It’s important to remember that suicide is a very private and complex thing.

‘James was tough and resilient, but he went through an astounding amount for any man. He was being called an organ trafficker, and accused of being involved in plots to murder people and stage chemical attacks.

Le Mesurier was a former officer in the Royal Green Jackets before he began supporting the White Helmets in Syria

Le Mesurier was a former officer in the Royal Green Jackets before he began supporting the White Helmets in Syria 

‘All these allegations were voiced at the United Nations. He was also probably suffering from trauma, having watched so many videos of dead children filmed by the White Helmets.’

Le Mesurier’s wife, Emma Winberg, 40, a fellow director of Mayday Rescue, confirmed that her husband had been on medication due to the ‘intense stress’  he was under.

Security at their home was so tight that it was impossible for an intruder to enter the apartment block. The door was equipped with a fingerprint recognition system and CCTV footage showed nothing suspicious.

As an indicator of her concern for his state of mind, whenever she couldn’t find him in the apartment, her first instinct was to look out of the window to see if he had jumped, she admitted.

On the morning of his death, she was awoken by banging on the door and discovered that her husband’s body was lying on the street outside the ivy-clad, five-story building in downtown Istanbul where they both lived and worked. 

Le Mersurier and his Swedish wife, Emma Winberg, 39, lived at this £1,000 per month property on the island of Buyukada, Turkey

Le Mersurier and his Swedish wife, Emma Winberg, 39, lived at this £1,000 per month property on the island of Buyukada, Turkey

The couple often stayed at an apartment in Istanbul near the White Helmets headquarters where Ms Winberg was also a director of their foundation

The couple often stayed at an apartment in Istanbul near the White Helmets headquarters where Ms Winberg was also a director of their foundation 

The ledge from where Le Mesurier fell to his death in an apparent suicide in November 2019

The ledge from where Le Mesurier fell to his death in an apparent suicide in November 2019

White Helmet volunteers trained by Le Mesurier carry a wounded boy from the rubble of a building in Idlib following an airstrike by Assad's forces in January 2020

White Helmet volunteers trained by Le Mesurier carry a wounded boy from the rubble of a building in Idlib following an airstrike by Assad’s forces in January 2020

He had tumbled from a roof terrace while she was asleep, wearing a white shirt, grey trousers and a wristwatch. 

A post-mortem found the twice-divorced Le Mesurier, who has two daughters from a previous marriage, had suffered a fractured skull and legs, and cuts to the face.

‘In the end, I don’t think it’s fair to try to guess what he was thinking in his last moments,’ Hadjimatheou said. ‘The question for me wasn’t what killed him, but rather how he managed to bear it all for so long.’

Chloe Hadjimatheou, the Radio 4 presenter who uncovered the truth of Le Mesurier's death

Chloe Hadjimatheou, the Radio 4 presenter who uncovered the truth of Le Mesurier’s death

Born in 1971 to a military family, Le Mesurier graduated top of his class at Sandhurst and went on to serve with the Royal Green Jackets in Northern Ireland and as an intelligence officer in Bosnia and Kosovo.

He retired from the Army in 2000 and bounced from job to job in the humanitarian, consultancy and private security worlds, eventually founding the Mayday Rescue charity in 2014. 

Le Mesurier’s work in Syria quickly drew international recognition, much to the irritation of Russian and Assad. In 2016, the White Helmets were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

As his profile grew, so too did the increasingly absurd propaganda attacks from Moscow, who labelled the White Helmets a ‘fake humanitarian group’ that was run by Western spies and was ‘pro-jihadist’.

Absurdly, the organisation was accused of staging air and artillery strikes for the cameras, harvesting organs, and setting up chemical attacks with the use of a secret gas chamber.

After a Netflix documentary about the rescue workers won an Oscar in 2017, Russia’s embassy in Britain tweeted: ‘They are actors serving an agenda, not rescuers’.

Given that many opponents of the Kremlin have met an untimely death by falling from windows, it was natural that Le Mesurier’s death would be greeted with suspicion.

White Helmet volunteers carry an injured boy to safety after an air strike in Idlib in January

White Helmet volunteers carry an injured boy to safety after an air strike in Idlib in January

Members of the White Helmets use the skills taught by Le Mesurier's team to dig injured civilians out of rubble near Aleppo in October 2020

Members of the White Helmets use the skills taught by Le Mesurier’s team to dig injured civilians out of rubble near Aleppo in October 2020

Many journalists, lawyers and aid workers – from the investigative reporter Maksim Borodin to the anti-Putin lawyer Nikolai Gorokhov – have met a similar fate after crossing the Kremlin.

However, the latest BBC documentary appears to confirm the official narrative favoured by the Turkish police, which is that the humanitarian worker died by his own hand after being subjected to prolonged stress. 

Mayday: Investigating The Life And Death Of James Le Mesurier, presented by Chloe Hadjimatheou, is available to download as a BBC podcast now  

If you have been affected by this story, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 or visit samaritans.org 

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