Apartheid revisited: the trial of 'Dr. Death'

The trial here of a South African cardiologist known as "Dr. Death" includes allegations of Nazi-like atrocities: a bacterium targeted at blacks, cholera released into a refugee-camp water supply, narcotics used for crowd control, experiments on blacks to see if a drug-laced gel would kill.

Dr. Wouter Basson, accused of being the mastermind behind some of apartheid's most horrific crimes, faces 46 charges, including murder, drug-trafficking, and fraud.

His trial, now in its 21st month, is one of the country's highest-profile cases stemming from apartheid-era crimes.

Basson, who has pleaded innocent to all charges, took the stand for the first time this week, telling the court that the South African government gave him free rein in running the country's covert chemical and biological warfare program - and that he drew lessons from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"One of the things the Basson trial shows is that the apartheid government went to great lengths to put drugs out on the street, to try to poison innocent black people, to infect them with all sorts of chemicals and diseases," says Shadrack Gutto, a professor at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand. "We are dealing with a government that was genocidal, that was not just engaged in discrimination."

Basson's trial has been cited as an example of the new government's commitment to prosecuting apartheid-era crimes.

In fact, the Basson trial is one of only a handful of such cases that have been pursued.

Many cases, few trials

Although the last amnesty hearings were completed in June, it now appears that the government will prosecute only about 20 of the thousands who have been denied amnesty, casting doubt, some observers say, on the legitimacy of South Africa's widely praised truth and reconciliation process.

The low number of prosecutions expected "makes a complete mockery about the truth process," says Piers Pigou, a former investigator for the Truth Commission who now follows the truth process for several non-governmental organizations. "Unfortunately, the majority of victims are powerless. As an interest group within society, they've lost their clout."

Basson himself refused to seek amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, saying that he had nothing to seek amnesty for. He testified to the committee only under threat of jail time. But the evidence that emerged during amnesty hearings, and over the course of his own trial, paints a picture of international subterfuge, bizarre poisons, drug-running, and experiments on human beings.

In all, Basson was charged with 61 crimes, ranging from murder to drug trafficking to fraud.

The trial judge dropped 15 of the accusations against him last month, including an accusation that Basson tried to murder the Rev. Frank Chikane, now the president's chief of staff, by poisoning his clothes.

But the cardiologist, who on the stand called his work in biological and chemical warfare an "interesting intellectual problem," still faces multiple counts, including 13 murder charges, and numerous fraud, drug, and other charges, including allegations that he experimented with ways to use the drug Ecstasy for crowd control.

Among the counts remaining is a conspiracy charge stemming from the death of a Namibian prisoner of war who allegedly died after drinking a "jungle juice" laced with poison.

"I did many things, but not one of them was illegal, and not one of them led to the death or bodily harm of a single person," Basson told South Africa's truth commission in 1998. "The U.S. and Britain do all these things on a daily basis. Whatever we did is peanuts by comparison."

If convicted, Basson faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

His trial has uncovered some of the more horrifying human- rights violations committed by South Africa's apartheid government.

Among the more damning evidence that has emerged is testimony from a former government assassin who said Basson supplied him with powerful muscle relaxants used to kill 200 Namibian guerrillas.

The cost of prosecution

Although the total cost of the case against Basson remains to be calculated, the cost of the doctor's defense alone, which the state is required to pay since Basson was in the employ of the state at the time of the alleged offenses, has already cost more than half a million dollars. Add to that the costs of a more than two-year trial and a three-year investigation, and the case is expected to run well into the millions.

The expense of the case has raised questions about the feasibility of future prosecutions. The office responsible for prosecuting those denied amnesty has a tiny budget and a staff of four investigators, which observers say is not enough to launch the kind of investigations many of these cases require.

"One of the ways that people engaged in the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was that if you did not apply for amnesty, you would be prosecuted," said Carnita Ernest, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

"If what we're saying is that we can only hold a certain number of people accountable because we don't have the resources, that's a real problem," says Ms. Ernest. "What have the victims gained from the process?"

Chris Macadam, head of the human rights division of the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions, said his office would likely prosecute about 20 more cases out of the more than 4,500 amnesty applications that were denied, though he points out that many of those denied amnesty are already in prison or cannot be prosecuted due to legal technicalities.

The lack of solid evidence also makes conviction in many cases uncertain, and he said his office would only pursue cases with a strong chance of success.

Fundamentally, though, Macadam says a decision must be made about whether an apartheid-era crime was serious enough to justify the enormous public expenditure necessary to bring the perpetrators to justice.

"One of the issues that has been raised is that we have high crime now, how can we justify prosecuting crimes that are old?" said Macadam. "We don't want to be accused of wasting public money."

Gutto said that cases like the one against Basson are important symbolically because they show that South Africa did not grant blanket amnesty for apartheid-era crimes but that the enormous cost of trials like this one make it impossible to prosecute everyone who was denied amnesty.

Other observers explain the reduced number of expected prosecutions differently: "There's no will for it," says Pigou. "They talk about resources and say, oh, we spent so many million on Basson. But personally, I think it's about political will and it's about not wanting to rock the boat."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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