Basson’s lawyer: There are no victims

"And we won't give stature to irrelevant comments by responding to them."

Wynanda Coetzee from Geyser and Coetzee Attorneys was responding to a suggestion by Professor Ted Metz of the University of Johannesburg that Basson work in public hospitals "to serve the descendants of his victims in the interest of reconciliation". Basson is the former head of the apartheid ­government's chemical and biological warfare programme.

An inquiry by the Health Professions Council of South Africa  (HPCSA) into Basson's conduct as a medical doctor during the apartheid era was postponed this week for the sixth time since it began in 2007 after one of his witnesses, former surgeon general Niel Knobel, took ill.

HPCSA spokesperson Lize Nel said final arguments are scheduled for the third week in July, during which the professional conduct committee will also assess whether Knobel is fit for cross-examination.

Nicknamed Dr Death by the media, Basson headed the apartheid defence force's secret Project Coast in the 1980s and 1990s. He's alleged to have arranged the killing of about 200 political prisoners in Namibia. The HPCSA is investigating the ethics of his involvement in the large-scale production of several illicit drugs and "weaponised" teargas.

He's also accused of providing soldiers with tranquillisers to use in cross-border kidnappings and cyanide capsules to commit ­suicide in the event of capture.

If found guilty by the HPCSA, Basson could be barred from practising as a doctor in South Africa. Coetzee says Basson is overseas and unavailable for comment.

Forced to serve in public hospitals
Basson owns a private cardiology practice in Durbanville near Cape Town. Metz, who specialises in reconciliation at the university's philosophy department, said if Basson is not scrapped from the council's doctors' role if he's found guilty, he should be forced to serve in public hospitals. "His practice is in a middle-class, largely white suburb with patients that are able to pay for alternative doctors if his services are no longer available. However, if he's forced to serve in underresourced areas, where knowledge such as his is scarce and his patients are symbolic of those he mistreated, he could perhaps play a meaningful medical role in South Africa."

The director of the University of the Witwatersrand's Steve Biko centre for bioethics, Ames Dhai, is wary of such a scenario: "Who is to say that he won't use his medical knowledge against humanity again? How safe are his patients with him? The huge concern is he has so far acted in contravention of every oath that we have subscribed to in medicine. There is no guarantee that he won't act in the same way again."

According to Dhai, South Africa's Constitution will be reduced to a "mockery of human rights" if Basson is not found guilty of "gross professional misconduct".

"How would we reconcile a not-guilty pronouncement with the other cases the council is taking up? Because those fizzle into nothing compared to what Wouter Basson has done," he said. "He used his medical knowledge for exactly the opposite reason that it was intended for, to inflict harm on so-called terrorists instead of saving lives."

Basson has consistently argued that his conduct has to be viewed in the context of apartheid, and that he was following the orders of superiors and that his actions were sanctioned by the government of the day.

But Dhai strongly disagrees. "He ought to have deregistered as a ­doctor. And he didn't. When a doctor is placed in a situation of multiple loyalties, the first priority is to save lives and to make sure that the ­people you work with – your patients – can trust you."

According to Metz, even as a soldier, Basson acted unethically: "There are several rules of war, such as the Geneva Conventions of 1977, of which South Africa is part, and which allows for soldiers to disobey orders that don't comply with humanitarian principles in cases of armed conflict. Basson chose to ignore this."

Mia Malan
Mia Malan
Mia Malan is the founding director and editor of the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism at the Mail & Guardian. She heads up a team of fifteen permanent and freelance staff members. She loves drama, good wine and strong coffee, not necessarily in that order.

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