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Dr Wouter Basson cleared of murder of apartheid opponents

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 20 April 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:938
  1. Pat Sidley
  1. Johannesburg

    “Dr Death,” the South African cardiologist Dr Wouter Basson, so dubbed by the local press for his supposed role in the deaths of antiapartheid activists, has been acquitted of charges of murder and fraud in a high profile trial which has lasted over two years.

    Dr Basson headed the chemical and biological weapons programme for the apartheid government's defence force and was acquitted on charges relating to activities during those years.

    The acquittal has been regarded as hugely controversial and has prompted calls for a revision of the judicial system, which has seen several high officials of the past government acquitted of similar charges.

    The prosecution has asked for leave to appeal, and the request will be heard at the end of the month by the same judge who acquitted Dr Basson, Judge Willie Hartzenberg. The High Court judge can turn down the request, but the Appeal Court could be petitioned itself to hear the appeal in that eventuality. The judge has been accused of bias, but few commentators had read the 1500 page judgment at the time that the harshest criticisms were uttered.

    Dr Basson has practised medicine in the armed forces throughout his career until midway through his trial, when he was eventually suspended.

    However, the Health Professions Council, the statutory registration body, which has been watching the trial, has kept him on the register.

    Dr Basson was accused of murder, including the killings of hundreds of soldiers from SWAPO (the South West African People's Organisation) who were drugged and then pushed out of an aircraft over the sea.

    He was also accused of supplying the murderous potions used to kill antiapartheid activists, as well as drug dealing charges, fraud, and theft. Until recently, it was widely believed, while evidence was being heard, that he would be found guilty of at least the drug dealing charge, having been caught red handed with the banned drugs when he was arrested.

    It was thought likely too, that he would be unable to explain the fraud charges, which involved millions of rands and the fact that he lived rather well for a doctor employed by the armed forces. Evidence had been presented too, by one of the previous government's assassins that he [the assassin] had killed “hundreds” of people using substances supplied by Dr Basson. He was however, found not guilty on all the charges, the judge having found that the prosecution had not adequately proved its case.

    Dr Basson had previously declined to give evidence at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and gambled on his acquittal by a court.

    Dr Basson spoke to the Pretoria Press Club after his acquittal and criticised the media for having “crucified” him. With an eye on publicity, however, he then calculated that the costs of the trial could have been spent on five million doses of the antiretroviral drug nevirapine to prevent the transmission of HIV from infected pregnant women to their babies. The two issues occupied headlines during the same week.

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