The deadly tools of `Dr. Death'

SUN JOURNAL

Trial: Witnesses say the man who led South Africa's secret chemical and biological weapons program employed poisons and disease in the service of apartheid.

May 26, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRETORIA, South Africa - A poison-tipped umbrella. Deadly walking sticks and screwdrivers. A ring with a secret compartment to transport poison. A grease-like substance fatal to the touch.

These may sound like props for a James Bond film, but testimony in a Pretoria courtroom this month is revealing that they were the real and deadly tools available to the apartheid regime to kill its opponents.

The man accused of dreaming up these instruments and ordering many of them put to use is on trial on 61 charges of murder, attempted murder, fraud and drug dealing.

Prosecutors say Dr. Wouter Basson, a 50-year-old cardiologist, masterminded the projects while heading South Africa's secret program to develop chemical and biological weapons.

Under Basson's guidance, the program is alleged to have developed vaccines to make black women infertile, plans to contaminate water supplies with cholera and yellow fever, and a plot to poison the imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. Basson's labs allegedly produced poison chocolate, cigarettes, beer, tea and soft drinks.

Local newspapers dubbed Basson "Dr. Death."

Basson has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

In court, he appears confident that he will walk away a free man. Basson, small-shouldered with a neatly trimmed beard, shakes his head in disbelief during witness testimony. He winks at the cameras as he enters the courtroom.

"We did not do any more or any less than any other country," he testified during his one day of questioning before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998. "I was the project leader and I was associated with many things, I did many things, not one of them were illegal and not one of them led to the death or bodily harm to any person."

Basson's trial is unearthing some of the most secretive and sinister projects since the Truth Commission hearings, which sought to expose and investigate the atrocities of apartheid. Each week new revelations emerge from witnesses testifying against Basson in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

This week, an employee of a company set up by Basson to manufacture chemical weapons told how the doctor asked him to make a walking stick that could shoot a projectile containing liquid or powder. He denied any knowledge of the weapon's purpose or target.

"I could surmise it could be used to shoot someone or something and carry that substance into the body," said the man called Mr. Q. His identity is being protected by the court.

Mr. Q said Basson later asked him to design an umbrella with four needles on its tip. Basson tested the device on a baboon, he said.

Other witnesses said the umbrella was developed to kill two ANC activists living in exile in London. The plot was eventually aborted and the umbrella dumped into the Thames.

At Basson's request, Mr. Q said, he built a ring with a compartment to hold poison to slip into someone's drink and a number of syringes masked as screwdrivers. Mr. Q testified that several times he was asked to drill holes in cans of orange drink so substances could be injected.

Another witness, Dr. Mike Odendaal, a bacteriologist who used to work for a laboratory linked to the apartheid defense force, testified that he had been told to store HIV-infected blood for use against an opponent of white rule. Odendaal said his boss, laboratory director Dr. Andre Immelman, gave him a small flask of blood drawn from an AIDS patient, and told him Basson wanted it freeze-dried.

HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, causes the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS, which kills an average of 10 years after infection.

Cross-examining Odendaal, Basson's defense counsel, Jaap Cilliers, ridiculed the idea that one would "grab the enemy, inject him with the infected blood, and he would only die 14 years later. I suppose that is what one can call long-term planning," Cilliers told the court.

Basson's patients have told local newspapers that he is a good doctor. The son of a police colonel and an opera singer, Basson was a brilliant student who graduated from medical school and was drafted into the military in 1979. He became involved in South Africa's border conflicts with Namibia, Mozambique and Angola. He rose quickly through the ranks and was promoted to brigadier in 1988.

Basson was tapped to head a chemical and biological warfare program designed to counter fighters in other countries who were rumored to be experimenting with their own chemical weapons.

But under Basson's leadership, prosecutors say, what was to be a defensive program became a biological and chemical weapons factory targeting leaders of the country's anti-apartheid movement.

Basson traveled the world to learn about new methods and technologies, setting up more than a dozen front companies and bank accounts into which he allegedly channeled money for his own gain.

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