Apartheid Revisited: The Trial of 'Dr. Death'

Article excerpt

The trial here of a South African cardiologist known as "Dr. Death" includes allegations of Nazi-like atrocities: a bacterium targeted at blacks, cholera released into a refugee-camp water supply, narcotics used for crowd control, experiments on blacks to see if a drug-laced gel would kill.

Dr. Wouter Basson, accused of being the mastermind behind some of apartheid's most horrific crimes, faces 46 charges, including murder, drug-trafficking, and fraud.

His trial, now in its 21st month, is one of the country's highest-profile cases stemming from apartheid-era crimes.

Basson, who has pleaded innocent to all charges, took the stand for the first time this week, telling the court that the South African government gave him free rein in running the country's covert chemical and biological warfare program - and that he drew lessons from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"One of the things the Basson trial shows is that the apartheid government went to great lengths to put drugs out on the street, to try to poison innocent black people, to infect them with all sorts of chemicals and diseases," says Shadrack Gutto, a professor at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand. "We are dealing with a government that was genocidal, that was not just engaged in discrimination."

Basson's trial has been cited as an example of the new government's commitment to prosecuting apartheid-era crimes.

In fact, the Basson trial is one of only a handful of such cases that have been pursued.

Many cases, few trials

Although the last amnesty hearings were completed in June, it now appears that the government will prosecute only about 20 of the thousands who have been denied amnesty, casting doubt, some observers say, on the legitimacy of South Africa's widely praised truth and reconciliation process.

The low number of prosecutions expected "makes a complete mockery about the truth process," says Piers Pigou, a former investigator for the Truth Commission who now follows the truth process for several non-governmental organizations. "Unfortunately, the majority of victims are powerless. As an interest group within society, they've lost their clout."

Basson himself refused to seek amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, saying that he had nothing to seek amnesty for. He testified to the committee only under threat of jail time. But the evidence that emerged during amnesty hearings, and over the course of his own trial, paints a picture of international subterfuge, bizarre poisons, drug-running, and experiments on human beings.

In all, Basson was charged with 61 crimes, ranging from murder to drug trafficking to fraud.

The trial judge dropped 15 of the accusations against him last month, including an accusation that Basson tried to murder the Rev. Frank Chikane, now the president's chief of staff, by poisoning his clothes.

But the cardiologist, who on the stand called his work in biological and chemical warfare an "interesting intellectual problem," still faces multiple counts, including 13 murder charges, and numerous fraud, drug, and other charges, including allegations that he experimented with ways to use the drug Ecstasy for crowd control.

Among the counts remaining is a conspiracy charge stemming from the death of a Namibian prisoner of war who allegedly died after drinking a "jungle juice" laced with poison.

"I did many things, but not one of them was illegal, and not one of them led to the death or bodily harm of a single person," Basson told South Africa's truth commission in 1998. …