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his much is certain: Ashraf Marwan, a man some describe as the 20th century’s greatest spy, was alive when he tumbled from the fifth-floor balcony of his £4.4m London flat. The Egyptian businessman landed, shortly after 1.30pm on 27 June 2007, in the private rose garden at number 24 Carlton House Terrace, a street whose former occupants include three prime ministers (Palmerston, Earl Grey and Gladstone) and which lies a few hundred metres from Piccadilly Circus. Overhead, the lunchtime sky was obnoxious with helicopters, swarming above Tony Blair’s Teflon-plated convoy as it carried the prime minister to Buckingham Palace, where he would hand in his resignation. A woman screamed. Someone called the police. The paramedics arrived too late. Marwan died from a ruptured aorta.
The details of the final minutes of Marwan’s life are much more opaque. Not that there weren’t witnesses: on the morning of his death, four men were meeting on the third floor of an adjacent building, 116 Pall Mall, in a room with a clear view of Marwan’s balcony. In a curious twist, these men – József Répási, Essam Shawki, Michael Parkhurst and John Roberts – worked for one of Marwan’s companies, Ubichem PLC; they were waiting for their boss to join them. He was late. When they called around midday to find out why, he assured the group that he would be with them shortly.
Répási, who was sitting with the window to his left, recalled that he was startled by one of his colleagues crying out, “Look what Dr Marwan is doing!” Two of the other witnesses claimed at the time that they saw Marwan leap from the balcony. By the time Répási had moved to see out of the window he saw “Dr Marwan falling”. Shawki, who was then the director of Ubichem, ran downstairs to help. The other three men remained in the room, shocked and bewildered. After a moment, Répási looked out of the window again, straining to see the spot where Marwan had landed. “I saw two Middle Eastern-looking persons looking down from the balcony of one of the apartments,” he told me via email – although neither he nor his colleagues knew whether or not the men were standing on the balcony of apartment number 10, Marwan’s address.
Did Marwan jump or was he pushed? The postmortem examination found traces of antidepressants in Dr Marwan’s blood. A report from his doctor said that he had been “under considerable stress of late”, and had lost 10kg in two months. But there are reasons to believe suicide was unlikely. There was no note. Marwan was due to fly to the US that evening for a meeting with his lawyer. He had just been accepted into the Reform Club, whose members include Prince Charles and former MI5 boss Dame Stella Rimington. A few days earlier he had bought his grandson a PlayStation 3 for his birthday. Marwan and his wife, Mona Nasser, the daughter of the former Egyptian president, were due to take their five grandchildren on holiday. Marwan had plans. He had appointments. He had reasons to live. “There is no evidence of mental or psychiatric disorder,” the coroner William Dolman said, after a 2010 inquest into Marwan’s death, which did not reach a verdict. There was “no evidence of any intention to commit suicide”, Dolman concluded. But paradoxically, he also declared there was “absolutely no evidence” to support claims that Marwan was murdered.
But while Marwan may not have intended to take his life, he certainly feared for it. The last time he was alone in his apartment with his wife, he told her that he “might be killed”. He added, portentously: “I have a lot of different enemies.” In the months leading up to his death, Nasser recalled that her husband checked the door and locks every night before bed, a new habit unseen during their 38 previous years of marriage.
According to Marwan’s family, there was another clue at the scene – or, more precisely, the absence of a clue. The only known copy of his memoirs, which he was close to completing, allegedly disappeared from his bookshelves on the day of his death. The three volumes, each around 200 pages, as well as the tapes on which Marwan had dictated the text, have never been recovered.
According to one scholar, Marwan had worked, over the years, for Egyptian, Israeli, Italian, American and British intelligence; was he preparing to spill secrets that could embarrass kings and nations? Who took the documents, if indeed they existed? And was his death part of a pattern? Marwan was the third Egyptian living in London to die in similar circumstances. (June 2001: the actor Soad Hosny fell from the balcony of Stuart Tower, a block of flats in Maida Vale, after she approached a publisher offering to write her memoirs. August 1973: El-Leithy Nassif, former head of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s presidential guard, fell from a balcony in the very same tower. He too was writing his memoirs.) All three victims had links to the Egyptian security services.
The inquest into Marwan’s death failed to provide many answers. “We simply don’t know the facts, despite careful investigation,” Dolman, the coroner, told the court in 2010. Indeed, after three years of examination by two separate murder squads, including Scotland Yard’s elite Specialist Crime Directorate, there remain, as Dolman put it, “many unanswered questions”. The story is alluring because its mysteries jar with the circumstances of the day – a death at lunchtime, in central London, with witnesses. The scene is littered with clues, but there is apparently no evidence to settle the story. And yet Marwan’s tale continues to itch at the curious. The doorman at 24 Carlton House Terrace told me that journalists drop by at a rate of “around one a year”, seeking answers about what happened that day. File a freedom of information request on the subject of Ashraf Marwan and you’ll receive an exhaustive list that outlines the many exemptions protecting the British intelligence agencies’ files on the matter. Both Marwan’s life and death remain opaque, composed of fuzzy details that sent obituary writers glumly reaching for the ifs and maybes.
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At the precise moment that Ashraf Marwan tumbled from his balcony, Ahron Bregman was sitting in his office in the war studies department at King’s College London, waiting for a call from the spy that never came. After a few hours, Bregman left to return to Wimbledon, where he took his family to lunch at Nando’s. As he left the restaurant, his mobile phone rang. It was his sister, calling from Israel: Marwan was dead. The news disoriented Bregman, but, in the context of their missed appointment, it was not entirely unexpected. Marwan had also left him a string of stricken answerphone messages in the preceding days. Bregman knew that his friend feared his life was in danger…