'Dr Death' walks free.

Author:Commey, Pusch
Position:South Africa - Wouter Basson

The champagne was on ice and barbecue flames alight even before Dr Wouter Basson, popularly known as "Dr Death", walked into the Pretoria high court on 11 April to hear the final verdict in a marathon trial that had lasted two-and-a- half years, starting from October 1999.

The state's bill was R20m (R9.5m of it being legal fees for Basson, borne by the South African Defence Force). Close to 200 witnesses testified on behalf of the stare. Basson called only one witness -- himself, in his own defence.

And the verdict: not guilty on all charges -- 46 charges! And so he was free to walk again.

Giving his famous "Diablo wink", Basson embraced his mother and his lawyer amidst spontaneous applause from a courtroom packed with well-wishers and old apartheid veterans, including the former defence minister, Magnus Malan, and the former surgeon general, General Knobel, who had earlier on testified for the state.

Basson said nothing to the press but rather made a hasty exit through the back door, to prepare for the evening party that was to come.

Basson had to answer 46 charges out of an original 67 (300 pages of indictment), relating to apartheid era crimes, which included 18 of murder, conspiracy to murder, assault and intimidation. And in addition, he faced 24 counts of fraud and theft, possession of drugs and being in possession of classified documents.

Particularly gruesome was a conspiracy to poison 200 SWAPO fighters in Namibia who were allegedly murdered using muscle relaxants and their bodies dumped into the sea by a special aircraft purchased for that purpose. Judge Willie Hartzenberg discharged Basson on that charge even before the case had started, on the grounds that it happened outside South Africa. Several of the original charges were soon to follow suit, like dominoes.

The result came as no surprise to the prosecution which immediately applied for leave to appeal even before reading the text. The judge apparently was planning to take a long leave soon after the judgement. The application will be heard on 29 April.

To the prosecution, the case was decided right at the beginning when Judge Hartzenberg, even before all the evidence had been led, said it would not take much to convince him that Basson was innocent on fraud related charges. The state proceeded to apply for him to step down for a new judge, but he refused.

A great part of the case became a showdown between the chief prosecutor Anton Ackerman and Judge Hartzenberg. Tempers...

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