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
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
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. …