Double testimony of bio-warrior

Bio-warrior Wouter Basson’s tangled web of explanations about almost 100 front companies set up while he was head of Project Coast began to unravel in the Constitutional Court this week.

For the first time, details of Basson’s testimony at an October 1997 bail hearing have entered the public domain. They contrast sharply with his evidence in a 30-month trial in the Pretoria High Court that led to his acquittal on more than 60 charges of drug-dealing, fraud and murder.

The bail hearing was held in camera, on national security grounds, and the media were later prevented from reporting proceedings by a court order granted to the African National Congress government. Lawyers for the latter argued the need to protect foreign agents and sanctions-busters who helped the apartheid regime obtain technology for its chemical and biological warfare programme, which Basson headed in the 1980s.

When Basson went on trial, the bail record was ruled inadmissible by Judge Willie Hartzenberg on grounds that it included possibly incriminating information obtained from Basson at earlier hearings of the Office for Serious Economic Offences, which could not be used against him in a criminal case.

In the Constitutional Court this week, however, advocate Wim Trengove cited passages from the bail transcript to show that Basson’s version bore “almost no relationship” to his trial testimony.
The discrepancies were so significant, Trengove argued, “that his evidence at the trial may have been a fabrication”.

If the state had been allowed to cross-examine Basson on these inconsistencies, Trengove said, the trial might have had a very different outcome.

The state had alleged that Basson was the beneficial owner of the multi-national WPW Group, registered in the Cayman Islands, and its South African subsidiary, the Wisdom Group.

A four-year forensic audit showed R37-million was diverted from the South African Defence Force slush fund to companies in the two groups, used to acquire an extensive property portfolio, including a R1,4-million luxury lodge at the Fancourt golf estate near George; a cottage near Windsor Castle in England, used by Basson and his wife, Annette, for holidays; the Five Nations Country Club in Belgium, a condominium in Florida, two farms near Ermelo and Witbank; an art deco mansion in Pretoria’s embassy belt, Merton House, later sold to the Zimbabwe government for R6-million; the Tygerberg Zoo near Cape Town; and a flat in the Pretoria suburb of Sunnyside and a house in Lynnwood.

At his trial, Basson claimed the properties were bought as “safe houses” on the instruction of high-ranking East German, Russian and Libyan agents with whom he had formed clandestine relationships in the interests of Project Coast.

He claimed he had made contact with them through an international “CBW Mafia” headed by shadowy German industrialist Herbert von Blucher, while posing as an international businessman. In return for laundering millions of dollars for the “financial principals” of the WPW and Wisdom groups, Basson testified, he could acquire chemicals and equipment vital to Project Coast.

However, it now appears Basson said nothing of the mysterious “financial principals” at his bail hearing, where he claimed all transactions were orchestrated by David Webster, an American attorney, on behalf of “unknown clients”.

Trengove also highlighted discrepancies in Basson’s explanations about a trust set up in the Channel Islands, of which his children were beneficiaries. At trial, he claimed Webster set up the trust, using his name, to “consolidate” the financial principals’ interests. His children were named as beneficiaries as part of the sham, said Basson.

At his bail hearing, however, Basson testified he set up the trust himself, using a £250 000 loan Webster facilitated.

When the court travelled to the United States to take the evidence of Webster and his wife, Jane, on commission, both testified Basson was at all times the beneficial owner of the WPW Group and properties acquired in its name. Webster denied knowledge of “financial principals”, saying he acted at all times for Basson.

Trengove argued this week that Judge Hartzenberg erred by ruling the bail transcript inadmissible and that the Appeal Court compounded the error by upholding his ruling. “There were far-reaching contradictions between the accused’s evidence at the trial and the bail hearing. They went to a fundamental pillar of the accused’s defence on the fraud charges, namely that he was acting on the instructions of the ‘financial principals’,” said Trengove.

The Constitutional Court is being asked to set aside Basson’s acquittal and pave the way for his retrial on grounds that the judge was biased, and that the Appeal Court wrongly upheld his verdict, refusal to recuse himself and decisions to declare the bail record inadmissible and to quash six serious charges against Basson.

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