'I just cannot wait to leave': After seven months detained in Dubai, cancer doctor is free

Oncologist's nightmare ordeal finally ends after he is acquitted of decade-old manslaughter charge and allowed to go home

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The Independent Online

After seven months in legal limbo and more than a dozen court appearances, a South African doctor detained in Dubai on a decade-old manslaughter charge was acquitted.

What was supposed to be a 10-hour stopover in the United Arab Emirates turned into an extended and unwelcome stay after Dr Cyril Karabus, a renowned paediatric oncologist, was stopped by customs officials and accused of killing a child in his care while working in the country in 2002.

Speaking to The Independent in the capital Abu Dhabi before the verdict, he recounted his ordeal and warned medical professionals to think twice before working in the country.

The 77-year-old had been convicted in absentia for manslaughter in a trial of which he says he was never informed. His subsequent retrial threw a spotlight on flaws in the UAE justice system and strained diplomatic relations with South Africa, with the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister flying to the UAE capital to push for his release.

“We were going out of the airport and the next thing, the guy looks at my passport and says ‘you’re a murderer’ come with me,” said Dr Karabus. “That’s how it all began.”

The emotional toll on the doctor, who also suffers from a heart condition, was evident. His family had described him as “broken” and at the meeting with The Independent he was bitter about his treatment at the hands of the country’s justice system.

Concerns had been raised over his health as he spent two months in UAE jails before being released on bail five months ago. Since then he has unable to work or leave the country, languishing in a state of uncertainty and accumulating more than $100,000 in legal fees. 

He was accused of being responsible for the death of a three-year-old child he treated for leukaemia while working as a locum in the UAE capital. He claims that at best she had a 20 per cent chance of survival and he did all he could to save her.  “I’ve had lots of children dying over the years, sadly that’s part of cancer,” he said. “But the UAE is the only place where I’ve had a problem.”

Dr Karabus’ trial was repeatedly delayed by the failure of prosecutors and a court-appointed medical committee to present evidence and the absence of medical files related to the case which his lawyer believed would exonerate him.

The panel of experts finally presented their findings on Monday, concluding there was no evidence of negligence, leading the judge to issue the verdict.

After retiring, Dr Karabus was forced to top up his modest public pension by working as a locum overseas. He had chosen public service over more lucrative private practice and was noted for his work during the apartheid years when he established the cancer unit at the University of Cape Town’s children’s hospital, which treated across the race divide at a time when most black people had restricted access to healthcare. 

Following his detention his international colleagues rallied around him, with the British Medical Journal describing his detention as “deplorable” and professional groups cautioning doctors to think carefully before taking up work in countries such as the UAE.

“I think this has got to be a warning to people who are thinking of coming to do work in these parts,” Dr Karabus said.

During his time stranded in the country he missed the birth of his third grandchild. He now hopes to make it home for his 78th birthday on 1 April. “At long bloody last,” he said. “I can’t bloody wait to get out of here.”