The OR Tambo building was eerily quiet on Thursday as journalists arrived to be briefed by Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane on the latest developments in the case of Professor Cyril Karabus, a South African doctor who was jailed for the murder of a Yemeni girl in the United Arab Emirates. Karabus was remanded in custody while in transit in Dubai last August. Unbeknownst to him, he had been tried in absentia for the murder of the girl, a patient of his during a short stint as a locum at an Emirati hospital. Since then, Karabus’ case has thrust South African diplomacy under intense pressure.
While much of the work of diplomats may be integral to the prevention of the next world war, it rarely has immediate, real-life consequences for ordinary South Africans. This is why we often wonder if parties are the sole preserve of embassies in Pretoria. (That said, Wikileaks has taught us that the Americans keep busy with cable writing in between hosting their parties.) What they actually do is not immediately discernible. Instead of being assessed by what they say they are doing, as they usually are, South African diplomats were to be assessed on what they did.
As Rebecca Davis noted last November in Daily Maverick, Dirco, as is their wont, initially maintained that it was not possible for them to interfere in the judicial processes of another sovereign country. It was only as outrage over Karabus’ detention grew more fevered that Dirco became more assertive. In early January, South Africa sent a demarche – a strong diplomatic statement – to the UAE, demanding that Karabus’ case be expedited.
“We wrote to the UAE government requesting that the UAE authorities deal with the case in an expeditious and fair manner, as the case was placing strain on the existing good relations between South Africa and the UAE in the field of medical cooperation,” Nkoana-Mashabane said on Thursday.
The UAE ambassador was also called in for a chat on the issue. And throughout the process, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation rendered extensive consular assistance to Karabus and his family. South African diplomacy could certainly not be criticised for doing too little.
But even as government continued to call on the UAE to expedite the matter and to bring it to finalisation as quickly as possible, little progress was made.
On the sidelines of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa earlier this year, South African officials continued their discussions with Emirati officials. At a prior media briefing, Nkoana-Mashabane said she had also engaged the Emirati Minister of State, Reem Ibrahim Al Hashimy, on the sidelines of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa in January.
In the meantime, Karabus’ retrial was in limbo.
Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Marius Fransman then travelled to the UAE to reiterate South Africans concerns about the many delays and postponements in the case. He warned his counterparts that the case threatened to impact negatively on the good relations between South Africa and the UAE.
South Africa does have significant ties with the UAE.
In 2011, Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, said South Africa was the 19th largest investor in UAE, having invested R 3.33 billion in the country from 2003 to 2011. Leveraging those ties for the greater good of Karabus’ freedom seems to have worked.
“Today’s judgment vindicates Prof Karabus, whose prolonged trial was characterised by delays,” Nkoana-Mashabane said.
The Abu Dhabi based National reported on Thursday that according to a judicial source, the case had gone on for so long because the former Higher Committee for Medical Liability resigned before the retrial, so the courts had to wait while a new committee was formed.
The source also said there was a “massive” amount of case files involved and the committee had other cases to examine. It could not give priority to Dr Karabus just because he was a professor.
The Karabus family has expressed their gratitude for the assistance they received from the government. “We are so grateful for all the help from Dirco and from the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Marius Fransman,” Michael Karabus, the professor’s son, told the Mail & Guardian.
There are said to be hundreds of South Africans languishing in foreign prisons for drug running. There have also been a small number of South Africans in Emirati custody for various drug-related offences. South African diplomats have had little success with their cases.
And diplomats have expressed their frustrations, too, on the challenges they face with the number of South Africans remanded in foreign custody for drug-related offences. One South African diplomat in Thailand is said to have disconnected her Facebook account because of a deluge of requests from family members of South Africans in Thai prisons. The Karabus case, however, was unique. His circumstances were exceptional, allowing government to accept the help of others in the quest to prevail on the Emiratis.
“We appreciate the efforts of role-players who played a role in the efforts to secure freedom for Prof Karabus. In particular, we thank the authorities in the UAE for their cooperation, the family of Prof Karabus for their cooperation and patience, civil society and business players as well as the people of South Africa for their solidarity,” Nkoana-Mashabane said.
While thanking “business players”, Nkoana-Mashabane brings up the curious role played by the likes of Dr. Iqbal Surve, chairperson of the Sekunjalo group. Earlier this week Surve tweeted,“It is extremely satisfying to know that reason always triumphs. [It] is always about finding the common ground in our humanity.
“Thanks to my business colleagues Faizal and Imtiaaz who did the journey to UAE with me. Your support was great. I am so happy for Cyril,” Surve added, after a medical review committee had this week submitted its report to the court, clearing Karabus of any wrongdoing during his treatment of the Yemeni girl, Sara Al-Ajaily.
When the Daily Maverick contacted him on Thursday, Surve said he was “delighted” with the news of Karabus’ acquittal.
He explained that friends and family of the Karabus family asked him to intercede on their behalf to Emirati authorities. His own diplomatic efforts began in Davos at the World Economic Forum in January this year. He said he was able to open conversations with key Emirati personalities about the plight of Karabus, and he then continued these discussions during a recent trip to the UAE.
“I used what information I had about the way they work in the Middle East,” he said.
He hastens to add that government’s official diplomatic efforts were not insufficient. “Clearly our government did a lot,” he said. “They fought quite hard, but then they got to a point where everyone had tried their best.
“In the end it came down to respecting the process,” Surve added. “Being a business leader with strong links to the Middle East, I was able to lend credibility to the process.”
The battle, however, is not entirely won yet. Professor Karabus must wait another two weeks to learn whether an appeal will be launched against his acquittal or if he’ll be getting his passport back. DM
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