/ 26 September 2011

Apartheid demons return to haunt Wouter Basson

Dr Wouter Basson risks losing his medical licence should a Health Professions Council South Africa (HPCSA) hearing find him guilty of unethical or unprofessional conduct relating to alleged human rights abuses.

The hearing into the charges against Basson, who headed the apartheid government’s biological and chemical weapons programme, began at the council’s offices in Pretoria on Monday.

The council is looking into six charges of alleged abuses committed between 1981 and 1993, including manufacturing Mandrax, Ecstasy and drugs used to sedate South African Defence Force (SADF) prisoners during apartheid.

Basson is also charged with providing cyanide capsules to members of the security forces so that they could commit suicide if needed, and with “weaponising thousands of 120mm mortars with teargas for use in Angola”.

Should Basson be found guilty of behaving unethically as a doctor, he could have his licence to practise as a cardiologist revoked.

The charges were first brought against him in 2007, and last year the high court in Pretoria dismissed an application by Basson to have the hearing declared unlawful, unreasonable and unfair.

During a break in Monday’s proceedings, Basson, who has a cardiology practice in Durbanville outside Cape Town, told reporters he wished to be allowed to put the past behind him.

“I closed this chapter 20 years ago,” he told reporters outside. “All I want is to continue serving the country as a medical professional.”

Coast is not exactly clear
As head of Project Coast, the chemical and biological warfare division of the SADF, from 1981 to 1993, Basson allegedly oversaw the creating poisons and biological weapons that would only poison black people, of sedating anti-apartheid soldiers who were taken on death flights and dropped into the ocean, and hoarding enough cholera to start epidemics.

In 2002, having declined to seek amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Basson was acquitted of 67 criminal charges that had been brought against him, including drug possession, drug trafficking, fraud and embezzlement of a total of R36 000 000, 229 murders and conspiracy to murder and theft.

The morning’s legal arguments centred around why the man who took over from Basson in 1993 as head of Project Coast, Dr Ben Steyn, was allowed by the HPCSA to keep his medical licence.

Cilliers said the defence wanted documents from the HPCSA that revealed why Steyn did not have his licence to practice as a doctor revoked. He said he wants to know why the HPCSA “came to the conclusion it did”.

Cilliers argued that the defence required the documents “as a matter of fairness”, and to discern the HPCSA’s view on registered doctors who had participated in biological warfare.

But the council’s prosecutor, Salie Joubert, said the application for documentation on Steyn had no bearing on the sanctions if Basson were to be found guilty.

“The application is only one intended to prolong proceedings,” argued Joubert.

Joubert said Steyn worked at Project Coast after Basson and his actions “did not affect the ethics of Basson’s conduct”.

Steyn had been expected to testify why he had granted permission to conduct biological warfare experiments during his tenure.

However, Steyn chose not to testify, and the hearing was adjourned, to begin again at 9am on Tuesday.

Health Council Professionals Legal Advocate Tshepo Boikanyo said Steyn was still employed by the military and needed advice from his superiors before being allowed to testify.

Boikanyo said the prosecution’s ethics expert, US consultant Stephen Miles, thought that there might not be enough evidence to sustain a guilty verdict on two of the charges.

The first is the charge of Basson’s accepting the position of project officer of Project Coast, the chemical and biological warfare arm of the SADF.

The second involves the manufacture of Mandrax, Ecstasy, cocaine and an incapacitating agent, and the use of them as weapons, between 1991 and 1993 in Swartklip.

If there is not enough evidence, Boikanyo said Basson could be found not guilty on those counts. — Additional reporting by Sapa