South African doctor held in UAE jail on 10-year-old charge

Cyril Karabus, known for apartheid-era treatment of black children, held for manslaughter of girl

The family of a 77-year-old South African doctor, known for his work treating black children with cancer during the apartheid era, expressed fears for his health yesterday as a court in the United Arab Emirates ruled that a medical panel should investigate a decade-old case against him.

Cyril Karabus, a leading paediatric oncologist, has already spent two months in Abu Dhabi's Al Wathba prison, which is notorious for its human rights abuse, after being arrested in Dubai for the manslaughter of a three-year-old girl in 2002. He was tried and convicted in absentia 10 years ago, but claims to have had no knowledge of the charge against him.

Abu Dhabi Criminal Court assigned a medical committee yesterday to examine records of the case, which are reported to have gone missing, and set the doctor's bail at Dh100,000 (£17,000).

The case against the doctor centres on whether or not he administered a blood transfusion to the infant, Sara Adel, who suffered from terminal leukaemia, while working as a locum at the Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre in the UAE capital.

He claims that he treated the child, but she died anyway.

Close to tears, Dr Karabus' daughter Sarah, a paediatrician based in Cape Town, described the effect her father's detention is having on the family. "It's completely traumatic for all of us, utterly traumatic. He's an old man, he's unwell. He's a father of five and a grandfather of two, with another on the way who we just hope he will be back to meet."

Ms Karabus was with her father as he was pulled aside by police at the airport on 18 August as they were leaving the country after a 10-hour stop over in Dubai on their way back from a wedding in Canada.

"He had no idea what it was about," she said. She was forced to fly out of the country with the rest of family, as their visas were valid for only 24 hours, leaving her elderly father to face the charges alone. "He remembers the girl and he had talked about her before, but he had no idea there was a case against him."

Ms Karabus has said that her father – who worked at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in Cape Town for 35 years, where he set up the haematology and oncology unit – appeared "broken" at previous court appearances and has been unable to call his family from jail, though he has told his lawyer he is generally being treated well. After his bail is paid, he will be allowed to leave jail, though his passport has been confiscated and he will not be allowed to leave the country.

"He's a man of integrity; he's not someone who deserves this," Ms Karabus said. "He stayed and worked in the public health service all his life because he wanted to save lives, not make money."

Dr Karabus, who was given a three-and-a-half-year term in absentia, was accused of failing to give a transfusion to the girl at the required time, and of falsifying medical records to make it appear as though he had. He had left the country by the time the child died. The British Medical Association has joined other professional groups around the world to condemn the detention of the doctor.

"Karabus is an elderly man in a fragile state of health, who is being held in conditions designed to break him and to weaken his health further. He is also a doctor being held in prison over his medical practice, apparently because that practice did not lead to a 100 per cent success rate," it said in an open letter. "Doctors considering working in the UAE should be aware that the conclusion of this case may have implications for how they practise."

The medical panel have until 20 November to report their findings, and the family remain cautiously hopeful. "The system is very different to any system we are used to, but they have now found the medical file, and if the file is intact it will exonerate him," said Sarah Karabus.

"We are hopeful but don't expect anything any more. I'm scared to get my hopes up."

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