/ 28 March 2012

Inquiry committee throws Wouter Basson a bone

Inquiry Committee Throws Wouter Basson A Bone

An administrative error uncovered on Wednesday during the inquiry into the professional conduct of Dr Wouter Basson will count in his favour after the committee hearing the inquiry ruled that evidence the prosecution had sought to use was inadmissible.

Basson lead the development of chemical and biological weapons during the apartheid era and although he was acquitted of criminal charges in the North Gauteng High Court almost a decade ago, he still faces questions over his fitness to practice as a medical doctor.

During cross-examination in the hearing being held by a professional conduct committee of the Health Professions Council of South Africa, pro-forma complainant Salie Joubert SC tried to question Basson on two pages of evidence included in the charge sheet for the case.

The evidence is drawn from Basson’s criminal trial and the lawyers for both sides are bound to make reference only to these pages of evidence and not to the full body of evidence that Basson gave to the high court.

But Basson’s lawyer Jaap Cilliers SC pointed out that although the pages in question were included in the evidence bundle, they were not included in the official list that details which pages may be referenced.

Joubert then asked that the pages in question be added to the charge sheet but the committee declined his request.

Basson denies role as medical officer
The incident is significant because a large part of the prosecution’s case depends on its ability to prove that Basson was acting as a doctor when he provided tranquilisers to security forces for use in cross-border kidnappings.

The result is that even though Basson told the high court that “it happened on a few occasions, maybe twice or thrice where I had attended an operational planning session as a medical officer” and even though this text is present in the evidence bundle, the prosecution may not use this statement as evidence.

This made it difficult for Joubert to pin Basson down concerning the capacity he had acted in when he provided the tranquilisers.

Contrary to the evidence he’d given in his criminal trial, Basson maintained that during these meetings he was acting not only as project officer of Project Coast but also as part of the special forces.

“I attended planning meetings as a member of the special forces … and I just happened to also be project officer of Project Coast,” he said.

Joubert accused Basson of providing “evasive answers” in order to avoid admitting that he relied on his knowledge as a medical practitioner when he provided tranquilisers for grab exercises.

“The charge is you used your medical, chemical and phsyiological knowledge to supply these substances,” said Joubert. He later added that the only reason Basson was able to determine the effects, damage, relative dosage and side effects of the tranquilisers was because of his medical knowledge as a doctor.

Basson replied that this was not the case and that rather, he had made use of his chemistry training to do research on the substances in question, that he provided guidelines to the chemists on how to develop the substances.

Joubert said the reason Project Coast was run under the auspices of the Surgeon General because of its relevance to physics, biology, physiology and pharmacology, and that the very reason Basson had been appointed to the project was because of his medical expertise.

But Basson maintained that he had no involvement in Project Coast as a medical practitioner.

At one point a frustrated Joubert told Basson “your arrogance is not going to get you far in this matter”. Cilliers objected saying this statement was “totally unwarranted”.

Joubert later put it to Basson that he was “part and parcel of a criminal act” when he participated in cross-border kidnappings and that as a thirty-something year old man with “some intelligence” he should have known better.

In response, Basson said that as a soldier approached by senior members of government and police to partake in the exercises, he had assumed they were “bonafide and correct”.

The hearing continued in an ill-tempered fashion throughout the day, with the lawyers cutting each other off and accusing each other of time wasting.

Further delays expected
The trial suffered a delay when the defence asked for comments that Joubert had made the previous day be withdrawn and for further direction on whether evidence outside of that contained in the charge sheet would be admissible.

The defence had taken issue with a statement Joubert made on Tuesday in which he said that Basson had waged chemical war on the population of South Africa.

The inquiry resumed after an adjournment that took up much of the morning. Cilliers directed Joubert to reacquaint himself with “the laws of evidence 101” and said the legal position was that one may not make statements of facts from inadmissible evidence.

But Joubert said he would not withdraw anything he’d said because he had grounds to make those statements. He referred the committee to the relevant sections of the record as evidence of this.

Following this, Judge Frikkie Eloff, a member of the HPCSA tribunal hearing the inquiry, said the question of whether the record showed that Basson had admitted that he was engaged in chemical warfare against the population was open to debate.

Cilliers also questioned whether the use of teargas could be construed as waging chemical warfare on a population. He said this was “completely ridiculous” given that the current government also makes use of teargas in riot control situations.

Committee chairperson Jannie Hugo asked the hearing to leave the matter be and continue with their arguments.

The result was that about half the day was lost rehashing Tuesday’s testimony.

Basson’s cross-examination, which was expected to wrap up by midday on Wednesday, will now continue on Thursday.

Thereafter the defence will call Basson’s former commanding officer, Dr Neil Knobel, who was the surgeon general in the 1980s.

The case continues.