WHO Syria head accused of mismanaging millions with cars and gold for regime

Documents obtained by Associated Press show Akjemal Magtymova lived lavishly in Damascus

Akjemal Magtymova, the World Health Organisation's representative in Syria, February 2, 2021.  AP
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Staffers at the World Health Organisation’s Damascus office are accusing their boss of mismanaging millions of dollars, giving Syrian officials cars as gifts, among other things, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The AP reviewed more than 100 documents, messages and other materials that appear to show WHO officials telling investigators that the agency’s Syria representative, Akjemal Magtymova, abused her staff and pressured them to sign contracts with the government while consistently misspending UN and donor funds.

Ms Magtymova, a medical doctor and Turkmenistan citizen, declined to respond to questions about the allegations, saying she was prohibited from sharing information because of her “obligations as a WHO staff member”.

She did, however, describe the accusations as defamatory.

The WHO has confirmed there is a “protracted and complex” investigation under way into Ms Magtymova's conduct but declined to confirm the details.

The allegations

Among the incidents being investigated is a party Ms Magtymova organised last May in which she received a leadership award from Tufts University, her alma mater. Held at the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, the party included a guest list of about 50.

A hotel invoice shows the reception’s menu included Singaporean-style beef satay, fried goats' cheese with truffle oil croquettes and sriracha chicken sliders, alongside a selection of seasonal mocktails. A production company was hired to film the event and make a promotional video.

The evening’s agenda featured remarks by the Syrian health minister, followed by a reception and nearly two hours of live music.

WHO documents show that the event was called to celebrate WHO’s designation of 2021 as the Year of Health and Care Worker, but attendees say the evening was exclusively devoted to Ms Magtymova. The cost, according to a spreadsheet, was more than $11,000.

Like many other UN expatriate staff in Syria, Ms Magtymova lived at the Four Seasons hotel. But unlike other staffers, she is accused of choosing to stay in a spacious, multi-room suite with two washrooms and a panoramic view of the city.

UN documents suggest she stayed in the suite from October 2020 to May 2022 at a discounted cost of about $450 per night, more than four times the price of rooms occupied by other UN staff. A hotel staffer said such suites normally cost about $940 a night.

At least five staffers also complained hat Ms Magtymova used WHO funds to buy gifts for members of the ministry of health and others, including “very good servers and laptops”, gold coins and cars.

In December 2020, she is accused of getting the more than 100 WHO personnel in the country to learn a flash mob dance, asking officials to film themselves performing the choreographed steps for a UN party.

Last year Ms Magtymova also hired a choreographer and film company to produce a video of staffers performing a dance to mark UN Day, which included a “cake-eating ceremony”.

Ms Magtymova posted one of the dance videos on WHO Syria’s social media accounts, but it elicited so much criticism that her superiors ordered her to remove it.

The video was disgraceful, said Anas Al Abdah, a leading Syrian opposition politician.

“The organisation should have [instead] filmed the catastrophic condition of our people and demanded justice.”

Ms Magtymova is also accused of abusing staff.

Six Syria-based WHO public health experts said Ms Magtymova called staffers “cowards” and “retarded” on several occasions. The experts told WHO investigators that Ms Magtymova “provided favours” to senior members of the Syrian regime and met with the Russian military, potentially breaching WHO’s supposed neutrality.

In one complaint sent to WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in May, a staffer in Syria wrote that Ms Magtymova hired the incompetent relatives of government officials, including some accused of “countless human rights violations”.

Mr Tedros did not respond to the staffer’s complaint. In May, WHO’s regional director in the eastern Mediterranean appointed an acting representative in Syria to replace Ms Magtymova after she was placed on leave. But she is still listed as the agency’s Syria representative in its staff directory and continues to draw a director-level salary.

The investigation

Complaints from at least a dozen personnel have triggered one of the biggest internal WHO investigations in years, at times involving more than 20 investigators, according to staffers linked to the inquiry.

The WHO confirmed in a statement that it has been reviewing charges against Ms Magtymova and said it has also enlisted the help of external investigators.

“It has been a protracted and complex investigation. In view of the security situation, confidentiality and respect for due process do not allow us to comment further on the detailed allegations,” the WHO said. It gave no timeline for when the results will be released.

The WHO’s Syria office had a budget of about $115 million last year to address health issues in the country, which is still fighting a civil war. The conflict started when peaceful demonstrations broke out in Damascus and in southern Syria against five decades of Assad family rule.

Nearly 90 per cent of Syria's population lives in poverty and more than half need humanitarian aid. For several months, investigators have been investigating allegations that Syrians were badly served and WHO staffers were ill-treated.

Not an isolated case

The accusations against the WHO’s top representative in Syria come after several misconduct complaints at the UN health agency in recent years. These include sexual abuse in Congo and racist behaviour by the top WHO official in the Western Pacific.

A report after the scandal in the Western Pacific found the agency had implemented many previously recommended reforms but had outstanding issues with “abusive behaviours by some supervisors, insufficient managerial support and training".

Javier Guzman, director of global health at the Centre for Global Development in Washington, told AP he found the latest charges, regarding Ms Magtymova, “extremely disturbing” and unlikely to be an exception.

“This is clearly a systemic problem,” Mr Guzman said. “These kinds of allegations are not just occurring in one of WHO’s offices but in multiple regions.”

He said although Mr Tedros was seen by some as the world’s moral conscience during Covid-19, the agency’s credibility was severely damaged by reports of misconduct.

Mr Guzman called for the WHO to publicly release any investigation report into Ms Magtymova and the Syria office.

The WHO said investigation reports are “normally not public documents”, but that “aggregated, anonymised data” in some form would be made publicly accessible.

Updated: October 20, 2022, 10:07 AM