South Africa's 'Dr Death' would like the past to stay in the past
CAPE TOWN LETTER:Anti-apartheid activists considered him one of their most ghoulish adversaries but Wouter Basson wants to be let run his medical practice
THE MAN nicknamed “Dr Death” by the South African media over a decade ago for his role as head of the apartheid government’s germ warfare programme began a fight to retain his life as a medical practitioner last week.
Cardiologist Wouter Basson does not strike fear into the heart of most South Africans anymore, but there was a time throughout the 1980s when anti-apartheid activists would have considered him one of their most ghoulish adversaries.
Between 1981 and 1993, Basson was head of Project Coast, the South African army’s top secret biological and chemical warfare programme, where he allegedly oversaw the development of poisons and biological weapons for use against enemies of the state.
Among numerous other things, the 61-year-old was accused of being involved in the creation of poisons that targeted black people, and of administering sedatives to dozens of anti-apartheid fighters then thrown from a plane to their deaths.
In the mid-1990s, when South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission started to investigate his role in Project Coast as part of its efforts to find out what happened security forces’ victims, Basson refused to participate in the process. However, in 1999, he was forced to reveal the extent of his involvement after a total of 67 different criminal charges were brought against him.
The charges related to 229 murders – 200 of which were carried out in Namibia – and conspiracy to commit murder, drug possession, drug trafficking, fraud and the embezzlement of €36 million. During his trial, Basson admitted heading up Project Coast, and that the programme had developed “24 different incapacitating substances . . . over the years”. But he was adamant he was innocent of any wrongdoing, arguing he acted under orders of the South African Defence Force.
Much to the dismay of state prosecutors, after a marathon 30-month trial, Basson was acquitted of all the charges against him and was granted amnesty. In relation to the 200 deaths in Namibia, the judge ruled a South African court did not have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed in other countries.
After the trial, Basson established a private practice in Durbanville, a small town outside of Cape Town, and it appeared that one of South Africa’s most infamous individuals would be allowed to put his past behind him and live out his life in relative peace and quiet.
However, the Health Professions Council of South Africa had other ideas. In 2007, the body brought six charges against Basson relating to whether he breached the medical code of ethics while overseeing Project Coast.
They included allegations that he manufactured mandrax, ecstasy and other drugs to sedate apartheid-era prisoners of the South African Defence Forces.
In addition, he is charged with providing cyanide capsules to security force members for the purposes of committing suicide if captured, and with “weaponising thousands of 120mm mortars with tear gas for use in Angola”.
It has taken the health professions council four years to get Basson to appear before the inquiry, due to his ongoing efforts to thwart the process.
Last year, the Pretoria high court dismissed an application by Basson to have the inquiry halted. Basson wanted the hearing to be found unlawful, unreasonable and unfair. During a break last Monday on the first day of the medical inquiry in Pretoria, he told reporters gathered outside the hearing that, as far as he was concerned, the past should stay in the past. “I closed this chapter 20 years ago,” he said. “All I want is to continue serving the country as a medical professional.”
Whether he gets to do this or not now depends on the council’s ruling in the inquiry. If he is found guilty, the body has the power to revoke his medical licence.
On Monday, Basson confirmed he co-ordinated research for Project Coast, but said he never crossed the ethical boundaries of his profession.
“The accused denies that any unlawful conduct of any nature and/or research or conduct contrary to any relevant convention or rule of the relevant national or international authorities was ever pursued or executed in the project,” he stated in a written explanation.
While a full week of witness evidence has unfolded in the hearing, observers say there is a strong likelihood the case could drag on for months, if not longer, as the ins and outs of medical ethics are presented by witnesses for both sides.
So will Basson’s past eventually catch up with him? Only time will tell. But until the inquiry is finalised, he remains free to continue in the medical profession.