South Africans divided over apartheid-era case

Last week, 'Dr. Death' was acquitted of all charges.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For 12 years, Wouter Basson allegedly developed poisons for use on enemies of South Africa's apartheid state. He searched for viruses that would sterilize or kill only blacks. He stockpiled cholera and illicit drugs, and ordered the development of bizarre weapons – such as a poison-tipped umbrella – for use by the secret police.

Yet last week, after a two-year trial, Mr. Basson was found not guilty of 46 counts against him, including murder, intimidation, and drug possession.

The failure of the South African government's multimillion dollar case against Basson – a chemical-weapons expert, dubbed "Dr. Death" by the country's media – highlights the difficulties of seeking legal justice for apartheid-era crimes under South Africa's model of reconciliation and forgiveness. It also shows the deep racial divide that still runs through this nation nearly eight years after Nelson Mandela became the country's first black president.

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South Africa's much-lauded Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent more than six years trying to understand what went on during apartheid. It traded amnesty from prosecution for truth.

But Basson, like many of the country's military men, declined the offer of amnesty. He said that during apartheid, he was only following orders.

One condition of the truth-for-amnesty arrangement allowed for apartheid supporters from the courts and civil service to remain in their posts. Because of this, most members of South Africa's judiciary are apartheid-era holdovers. Basson's trial often seemed to belong to an earlier time.

The trial was conducted in Afrikaans, a language the former regime tried to make South Africa's official tongue. The nearly all-white audience, including a number of high-ranking generals who themselves had beaten criminal charges, cheered when the verdict was read. They said it vindicated the old regime.

In the days after the verdict, however, angry callers flooded local radio talk shows, asking how a man, who openly confessed his involvement in some of the apartheid regime's most horrific plans could walk free.

"This case does ... undermine the credibility of the limited justice that was seen to be done through the truth and reconciliation process," says Shadrack Gutto, a professor at the Center for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg.

Prosecutors, who plan to launch an appeal, say the judge was biased. They say he repeatedly showed his sympathy toward the accused by dismissing charges, refusing to hear evidence, and prejudging the case.

Basson's defense team called on only one witness, Basson himself, to refute evidence put forward by the prosecution's 200 witnesses. In his ruling, Judge Willie Hartzenberg said that he accepted Basson's version of events and that state failed to prove it's case.

"It is, indeed, significant that the judge has accepted Basson's word over the word of those witnesses and over the documentation that the prosecutors put before him," says Chandré Gould, who has been following the trial for the Center for Conflict Resolution.

Basson may face charges in Namibia, where he is accused of providing poison used to kill some 200 soldiers fighting against South Africa's apartheid regime.

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