'Dr Death' gets a drubbing
Dr Wouter Basson will probably never go to advocate Salie Joubert SC for a character reference. This week, Joubert, the pro forma complainant at the inquiry into the professional conduct of Basson before a tribunal of the Health Professions Council of South Africa, repeatedly accused Basson of lies and deceit, being obstructive and having selective amnesia.
“You are an unreliable, untruthful witness, not prepared to accept responsibility and shifting blame,” Joubert said at the tribunal in Pretoria.
Basson, who headed the apartheid government’s secret biological and chemical warfare project, Project Coast, during the 1980s and coordinated the establishment of Delta G, a covert chemical warfare research facility that manufactured drugs and teargas, told the tribunal that his work was geared to preventing the loss of life.
Since the early 2000s, the man also known as Dr Death has been running a successful cardiology practice in Durbanville, Cape Town. If the tribunal finds him guilty of unethical behaviour, he will be barred from practising medicine in South Africa.
Basson remains unremorseful
Throughout the hearing, Basson maintained that his actions had to be viewed in the context of the apartheid era and that, as a soldier, he had been following the orders of his superior officers and his actions had been sanctioned by the government of the day.
He maintained that he had acted in his capacity as a soldier, not as a medical professional, and had never contravened any medical guidelines. “I acted humanely under all conditions as a soldier. I was not involved in the practice of medicine,” he said.
The substance of the prosecution’s argument will be hard to prove. Key people who may have been able to confirm or contest Basson’s testimony have died.
The hearing relies heavily on extracts from the evidence Basson gave during his 30-month-long criminal trial and counsel may not deviate from it.
On Monday, Basson’s defence lawyer, Jaap Cilliers SC, who also represented him in his criminal trial, called for a ruling on whether new evidence from the criminal trial could be introduced.
Half a day was lost after the defence contested Joubert’s statement, made on Tuesday, that Basson had “waged chemical war against the population of South Africa”, saying that this had raised concerns from the defence force and from General Niel Knobel, the former surgeon general to whom Basson reported in the 1980s and who is to give evidence in the trial.
Joubert is defiant
Although the tribunal reprimanded him, Joubert stood by his statement.
Ames Dhai, director of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics at the University of the Witwatersrand, said it was disappointing that the hearing had been reduced to “another legal wrangle”.
“What we should actually be looking at is whether what was done was morally correct or morally incorrect, and if so, why. And that’s not the exercise at the moment.”
Even so, Dhai said, it was not too late for the health professions council to hold a hearing.
“Clearly, even at this stage, he [Basson] cannot see that what was done is morally unacceptable. Would you be prepared to go to a person like that for medical care?” Dhai said.
Next week will mark 10 years since Basson was acquitted of all charges, including murder, fraud and drug trafficking, in a criminal case before the then Pretoria High Court.
The council’s hearing has been pending since then.