James Le Mesurier, whose Mayday Rescue organization founded and supported White Helmets' rescue efforts in Syria, was found dead near his home in Istanbul on Monday, prompting a wide-ranging police investigation.
The death of Le Mesurier, a former British army officer whose body was discovered near his home in Istlanbul's Beyoğlu district by worshippers headed to a mosque, was confirmed by both the MayDay Rescue and White Helmets international organizations.
Mayday Rescue's biggest operation is its support and training for volunteer rescue workers in Syria. Its 48-year-old humanitarian leader spurred rescue efforts that saved tens of thousands of lives over the past five years of Syria's 8-year-old war.
"It is with very heavy hearts that Mayday Rescue must confirm the death of James Le Mesurier," the not-for-profit organization, which has offices in Amsterdam and Istanbul, said in a statement.
"As the founder and CEO of Mayday Rescue, James dedicated his life to helping civilians respond to emergencies in conflicts and natural disasters," it said. "Nowhere was the impact of his important work felt so strongly as in Syria, where Mayday supports a network of volunteer rescue workers known as Syria Civil Defense, also known as The White Helmets. Their work has saved countless lives of civilians affected by the conflict."
The organization appealed to the public for "space and privacy" to allow Le Mesurier's family, friends and colleagues to grieve. It also requested that news media organizations "refrain from unnecessary speculation about the cause of his death" until authorities complete their investigation.
"Rather we ask," it said, "that James be remembered as what he was: a great leader, a visionary, and a dear colleague and friend."
As first responders, the network of volunteer rescue workers that Le Mesurier led also wear GoPro cameras on their helmets that have recorded video of potential war crimes carried out in Syrian and Russian attacks on medical facilities, schools and other civilian targets.
Local news media reported Le Mesurier took medicine for intense stress and his body was found with fractures to his legs and head outside of his apartment, where he was believed to have fallen to his death. The Istanbul governor's office issued a statement that "comprehensive administrative and judicial investigations into Le Mesurier's death have been initiated."
International news media noted his death came days after Russia's foreign ministry claimed on Twitter that Le Mesurier was a former spy with "connections to terrorist groups" and the White Helmets that he led provided assistance to Syria's "most dangerous terrorist groups."
Documenting potential war crimes
Le Mesurier, a British citizen born in Singapore, became a captain in the British Army and worked with the United Nations peacekeeping force in former Yugoslavia before getting into private security work.
In 2014, he founded the Mayday Rescue Foundation, registered in the Netherlands, to train and support volunteer emergency workers in conflict areas, particularly in the Middle East. His foundation also helped create and train the White Helmets volunteers in Turkey for deployment in neighboring Syria.
With the financial support of Western governments, the White Helmets volunteers has saved more than 115,000 lives during the Syrian conflict, according to the U.K. government. The organization says 252 of its volunteers have been killed and more than 500 injured trying to deliver aid to Syrians trapped in conflict.
"As frontline humanitarians, they are protected by international humanitarian law. Although they work exclusively in areas outside of government control, they have saved lives from all sides of the conflict, including that of government soldiers," the White Helmets organization says on its website.
"They are also subjected to constant attack online — both personally and through a hate-filled Russian-backed disinformation campaign carried out by bloggers, bots and trolls," it says. "The White Helmets are being targeted for daring to operate outside the control of the Syrian regime and showing the world what is happening in Syria."
Le Mesurier was awarded an Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2016 for his work in Syria. A documentary on the group won an Academy Award in 2017. The U.K. government granted asylum to 500 White Helmets volunteers last year.
But due to its support from the United States and U.K. governments, the White Helmets have attracted the ire of pro-Russian and pro-Syrian government propagandists and conspiracy theorists. To counter those forces, the U.K. envoy to the U.N., Karen Pierce, told news media outlets that Le Mesurier was not a British spy but was a real-life hero and humanitarian.
“I want to take the opportunity to say on the record that the Russian charges against him that came out of the foreign ministry, that he was a spy, are categorically untrue,” she said. “Above all, he wasn't a serving soldier when he founded Mayday and the White Helmets. The world, and Syria in particular, is poorer for his loss.”
Author and foreign correspondent Janine di Giovanni described the forces working against Le Mesurier in an October 2018 article, entitled "Why Assad and Russia Target the White Helmets," published in the New York Review of Books.
Part of the opposition to his group, she wrote, has to do with the testimony and evidence of potential war crimes provided by his international organization to the Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, which was created by the U.N. Security Council and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to research chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Based largely on that testimony and evidence, the JIM has confirmed that sarin was used in an attack and the Syrian government was responsible for it. "Almost immediately after the attack, the Syrian regime initiated a disinformation campaign backed by its patron, the Russian government," she wrote, adding that Russia's foreign ministry spread propaganda claiming the White Helmets staged the chemical attacks using actors as part of a Western-led conspiracy to provide cover for a U.S. airstrike and plot to bring down Assad.
"One strategy pro-Assad bloggers use to discredit the White Helmets is to argue that the group is funded by governments that, in the bloggers’ view, are intent on regime change in Syria," wrote di Giovanni.
"But the White Helmets’ financial backing is not the real reason why the pro-Assad camp is so bent on defaming them," she wrote. "Since 2015, the year the Russians began fighting in Syria, the White Helmets have been filming attacks on opposition-held areas with GoPro cameras affixed to their helmets. Syria and Russia have claimed they were attacking only terrorists, yet the White Helmets have captured footage of dead and injured women and children under the rubble."
Earlier this year, Le Mesurier told The Washington Post that his international organization pays a heavy price for saving lives.
“What you need to understand is that these guys are the ones still fighting to save lives. They didn’t get into this job because they were political. They were bakers, engineers and just normal people,” he said. “But when it was a choice between fleeing or saving lives, this is what they chose: to stay, and to make a difference.”