Did this man 'kill blacks big time'?

Author:Osei, Boateng
Position:Special report: South Africa

The horrifying tale of Dr Wouter Basson's campaign trail of death has been unfolding in the Pretoria High Court since 4 October 1999 when his trial began. He faces 46 charges ranging from murder to fraud and drug dealing arising from his role as head of the chemical and biological warfare programme of the apartheid South African government. One of his former colleagues has said Basson "killed the blacks big time", but the army doctor has denied everything in court without calling as much as a single witness in his defence. In contrast, the prosecution called nearly 200 witnesses over two years. Basson finished his sole-witness testimony on 26 September, spending two months in the dock. We have an 18-page "special report" here on the trial. Please have a seat as this could knock you off your feet. It's truly mind boggling.

His real name is Dr Wouter Basson, but South Africans call him "Dr Death". He is 50, and a decorated army brigadier. In civilian life, he is an eminent cardiologist. To some supporters of the old apartheid order, he is even a hero. As the head of the apartheid regime's clandestine chemical and biological warfare programme codenamed "Project Coast", he is alleged to have "killed the blacks big time".

Dr Daan Goosen, the first managing director of Roodeplaat Research Laboratories, the South African Defence Force (SADF's) front company in the north of Pretoria where Project Coast was based, is on record to have said: "There are many people who think Basson was a war hero -- because he killed the blacks big time".

After Basson appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1998, the cuddly archbishop described Project Coast as "the most diabolical aspect of apartheid".

Over a period of 10 years (from 1983), Basson is alleged to have applied his medical/military training and skill to eliminate opponents of the apartheid regime in a most diabolical fashion.

Some of the revelations in court appear to confirm fears by certain Aids-watchers who have, in the past, pressed for a second look by governments in Southern Africa (or the former "Frontline States") into the current high incidence of HIV and Aids infection in the region as reported by UNAIDS and WHO.

The Aids-watchers have urged the Southern African governments to "look beyond sex" as "there could be something more to the extremely high rates of HIV infection and death in the region".

They have cited such clandestine chemical and biological warfare (CBW) programmes as the one headed by Dr Basson and the other operated by the Rhodesian regime during the liberation war in Zimbabwe. "Did the two white-supremacist regimes use the region as one big laboratory to teat the CBW weapons they developed, or were developing?" the Aids-watchers have asked.

There is enough circumstantial evidence showing this could have been done, but of course nobody would own up to it. The lack of hard evidence has left many vital and searching questions as the white South African writer, Ben Geer, poses in his 1997 book, Something More Sinister, (see Ben Geer's Epilogue on p34), begging for answers.

Dr Mike Odendaal, a microbiologist on Project Coast, who "did ghastly things at Roodeplaat, including putting anthrax spores in cigarettes, chocolates and lipstick", was reported on 15 January this year by the American magazine, The New Yorker, as saying:

"Angola would have been the ideal situation in which to test these [CBW] weapons. But Basson wanted to use them against our domestic opponents as well -- to impress the generals. But one of the major tenets of chemical warfare is that you don't use these things on your own soil."

William Finnegan, who wrote The New Yorker's 15 January piece, said: "I asked [Dr Odendaal] about the charge, often heard that the drinking water in the Eastern Cape district, a centre of political resistance, had been deliberately infected with cholera in the late 1980s.

"Odendaal nodded. 'If that happened, the cholera in the Eastern Cape probably came from my lab, and it probably did kill old people and kids,' he said. 'I only read about it in the papers and then was confronted about it at the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission]. No details have come out but it was probably put in the water. That, again, is something you produce to use in enemy territory, not on your own people.

'And it doesn't make any sense, if you want to make a dent in the black population, to poison a couple of hundred people, putting a strain on your own health services. You need to kill 10 million to make a difference'," Odendaal added.

Basson at the TRC

In 1998, South Africa's TRC held a special round of hearings on Project Coast and offered Wouter Basson amnesty in exchange for the whole truth.

Basson duly appeared before the TRC on 10 June 1998 but rejected the amnesty with contempt. He was being investigated at the time, after his arrest in a sting operation in January 1997 for allegedly selling illegal drugs to a police undercover agent.

That investigation snowballed into the opening of a very special can of worms. And so, since 4 October 1999, Basson has sat in the Pretoria High Court and listened as his former comrades from Project Coast have told about the harrowing tale of death, assassinations, poisonings, attempted murder and fraud.

After the TRC hearings, Archbishop Tutu wrote that he found the stories "devastating" and "shattering".

The New Yorker's excellent piece published on 15 January on Basson's trial covered 18-pages. It is a veritable collector's item. In it, William Finnegan, reported the evidence led in court thus far:

"There [have been] revelations of research into a race-specific bacterial weapon; a project to find ways to sterilise South Africa's black population; a discussion of deliberate spreading of cholera through the water supply; large-scale production of dangerous drugs; the fatal poisoning of antiapartheid leaders, captured guerrillas, and suspected security risks; even a plot to slip thallium -- a toxic heavy metal that can permanently impair brain function -- into Nelson Mandela's medication before his release from prison in 1990."

Wouter Basson has denied everything in court. He was initially charged with 67 counts of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, fraud and drug offences.

At the beginning of the trial, his defence lawyer, Jaap Cilliers, argued that six of the charges -- covering conspiracy to murder -- be dismissed, The six charges involved 200 "surplus" SWAPO prisoners killed with muscle relaxants.

Cilliers argued that the alleged crimes had occurred in Namibia ("the operational area"), and therefore could not be prosecuted in South Africa. Moreover, they were covered by the indemnity granted by the South African administrator of Namibia at the time of the country's independence in March 1990.

The presiding judge, Willie Hartzenberg, ("redrobed and white-haired, he runs his court with gruff good humour, adjourning, as he always has, at noon on Thursdays in favour of his golf game", according to The New Yorker), had a good think about Cilliers argument, even delaying the trial as he considered the motion. A week later, he dismissed all six charges to public outcry in South Africa.

The witnesses

In court, the prosecution -- headed by stare attorneys Tone Pretorius and Anton Ackermann -- has led evidence, from neatly 200 witnesses, showing how Project Coast was financed, the research it conducted and the "abuse" that spun from it.

It has been a torrid trial for all concerned -- the judge, the prosecution, the defence and the witnesses. As The New Yorker reported: "Many of the trial's witnesses are caught between their roles in the old regime, where they often worked closely with Basson, and their new situations -- though some have not changed jobs...

"In a twist that typifies the incestuous opaciry of the trial," The New Yorker said, "Dr Niel Knobel (the former surgeon-general) who was Basson's nominal supervisor at Project Coast, took the stand as a witness against his former comrade (and one time anatomy student) only weeks after undergoing triple-bypass heart surgery partially under Basson's care... Knobel continues to describe Basson as 'cool, calm, and collected, and a gentleman'...

"A police officer who participated in the drug sting against Basson," the magazine said, "was testifying...

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