S. Africa doctors absolved of role in Biko death

South African medical regulatory authorities finally have decided not to take any disciplinary action against three physicians who attended black consciousness leader Steve Biko before he died in police custody.

The move comes almost three years after Mr. Biko's passing and apparently means that no one will be punished for his death.

The black leader, founder of a non-violent movement that eventually claimed thousands of followers in this racially divided country, died of head injuries sustained while he was being questioned by South African security police in September 1977.

An inquest conducted by the South African government subsequently found that no one was to blame for his death.

The decision not to discipline three physicians who attended Mr. Biko while in detention was taken by the South African Medical and Dental Council at a meeting in Pretoria on June 17.

Opposition parliamentarian Helen Suzman termed the decision "unbelievable. . . . It reflects very badly on the council and the medical profession as a whole in South Africa," she said.

The move comes despite evidence that Mr. Biko suffered serious injuries to the head and other parts of the body while in police custody, and was left on the floor of his cell, naked and shackled. According to evidence made public at the inquest, various of the three doctors -- Ivor Lang, Benjamin Tucker, and Colin Hersch -- did not ask questions about Mr. Biko's head injuries, did not give him regular medical checkups after he was injured, issued incorrect medical reports, and ignored signs of brain damage as he lay suffering.

As his condition deteriorated, Mr. Biko was carried, still naked, in the back of a Land Rover truck on a 680- mile overnight trip to the South African capital of Pretoria. Shortly after he arrived, he died.

A number of international agencies have pushed to cut ties with South African medical organizations over the council's earlier refusal to discipline the three physicians. The latest decision, which most observers here view as final, is likely to revive the issue in world medical circles.

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