South Africa's `Dr. Death' acquitted of murder, fraud

Basson led apartheid's chemical arms program

April 12, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRETORIA, South Africa - The man South Africans dubbed "Dr. Death" - the mastermind behind apartheid's bizarre and horrific chemical and biological weapons program against its black opponents - was acquitted yesterday of all charges against him, including murder, fraud and drug dealing.

Reading from his 1,500-page judgment, Pretoria High Court Judge Willie Hartzenberg declared that state prosecutors - after 2 1/2 years and more than 200 witnesses - had failed to prove their case against Dr. Wouter Basson.

Basson, a 51-year-old cardiologist, stood accused of dreaming up gruesome plots to murder anti-apartheid officials such as former President Nelson Mandela and sterilize black women while head of Project Coast, South Africa's chemical and biological warfare unit in the 1980s and early 1990s.

He traveled the world under many guises, attempting to infiltrate American and European defense programs, creating a network of scientists and chemical suppliers, living a life of luxury at taxpayers' expense, prosecutors said.

During the trial, witnesses told of Basson's orders to create deadly bacteria to contaminate water supplies, lace chocolates with poison and cigarettes with anthrax, contaminate shirts with deadly substances, produce exploding washing powder and lethal umbrellas, all tools to eliminate those opposed to South Africa's white-ruled government.

The case against Basson was one of the longest and costliest trials in South African history and revealed one of the most disturbing chapters of South Africa's past.

He faced 18 counts of murder or conspiracy to commit murder, 24 charges of theft and fraud totaling more than $4 million and several counts of drug trafficking.

Despite months of chilling testimony of gruesome murders, spy games and drug deals all allegedly orchestrated by Basson, most observers were not surprised by yesterday's outcome.

The South African courts have had difficulty prosecuting crimes committed against members of the now ruling African National Congress.

The country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered the victims and perpetrators of violence under apartheid a chance to tell their stories and request amnesty. Basson testified before the commission, but refused to apply for amnesty. Thousands were either denied amnesty or failed to step forward and testify, exposing themselves to potential prosecution.

But Basson's acquittal, analysts say, will contribute to a feeling that the celebrated truth and reconciliation process might have failed the public.

"This trial has in some sense thumbed its nose at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission," said Graeme Simpson, executive director of the Center for Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. "It sends a message to those who did not apply for amnesty that they should feel safe." Moreover, he added, "It allows the Bassons of the world to sustain the myth of their innocence."

Early on in the trial that started October 1999, prosecutors accused Judge Hartzenberg of being biased in favor of Basson. Hartzenberg remarked that he was "bored to death" by the state's case. Prosecutors asked for the judge to be replaced, but Hartzenberg balked at the request.

"The state already has an indication of who is regarded as the Virgin Mary of this court," the senior prosecutor told the court last year. Prosecutors said they plan to appeal Basson's acquittal.

Yesterday's court hearing had many of the trappings of the old South Africa. Hartzenberg read his judgments in Afrikaans, the official language under South Africa's days of white rule. Some of apartheid's top leaders, including the former defense minister Magnus Malan, the former military chief Constand Viljoen and former Surgeon-General Niel Knobel, filled the long wooden benches in the rear of the court.

A balding, slight man with a neatly trimmed beard, Basson has been described as charming and confident. He would often wink at the cameras as he entered the court each day.

Basson remained free on bail throughout the trial and continued to practice medicine at a Pretoria hospital until last year. He declined to comment on the judgment yesterday.

The son of a South African Defense Force colonel and an opera singer, Basson grew up in Cape Town. A brilliant student, he graduated from University of Pretoria medical school before being called to duty in the apartheid military. He fought in conflicts in South-West Africa, now Namibia, Mozambique and Angola. He rose rapidly to the rank of brigadier and was tapped in 1980 to establish Project Coast, a chemical and biological warfare program that targeted leaders of the country's anti-apartheid movement.

Testimony revealed that during the 1980s, Basson slipped into a shadowy existence as a spy on other chemical weapons programs around the world. He married a number of wives in different countries, bought homes and properties and set up front companies and bank accounts that he allegedly used to pocket money for his own gains.

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