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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 52, November 2000

More Questions Than Answers: The Ongoing Trial of Dr Wouter Basson

By Chandré Gould

The trial of the former head of South Africa' apartheid chemical and biological warfare (CBW) programme, Dr. Wouter Basson, began in the Pretoria High Court in October 1999. Basson faces 61 charges, including murder, conspiracy to murder, possession of drugs of addiction (methaqualone and Ecstasy) and fraud. He has pleaded not guilty on all charges and denies the allegations against him. The trial has already taken more than a year and it appears unlikely that judgement will be passed until at least midway through 2001.

No evidence presented thus far indicates that South Africa had weaponised or produced large quantities of chemical or biological warfare agents, other than CR gas, a more potent variety of tear gas than the CS traditionally used by the police in South Africa. Since the trial is continuing, this report does not seek to pre-judge Basson but rather to highlight some of the important questions the trial raises about the ethical responsibilities of scientists and health professionals. It also raises questions about the involvement of other countries, including alleged intelligence agents from countries which are parties to relevant treaties that may have been violated. Official documents show that the project was initiated at the end of 1981 on the authority of the Minister of Defence and was concluded at the end of 1993. South Africa was a party to the 1972 Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BWC).

Most of the incidents for which Basson is indicted took place during his tenure as project officer for Project Coast, code-name for the apartheid top secret military CBW programme nominally overseen by the Chief of the Defence Force. Basson is charged with providing poisons to military operators to be used by clandestine operational units of the South African Defence Force (SADF) to murder people identified as "enemies" of the state or people who the military believed posed a threat to the defence force. Forensic auditor Hennie Bruwer, who analysed the flow of Project Coast funds for the state' case, has stated that from March 1, 1987 to February 28, 1993, the period covered by the indictment, the project was allocated R340.9 million, of which R37 million was allegedly misappropriated. Basson has pleaded not guilty on all charges and refutes the charge that he was involved in the provision of poisons to operators. He claims that he acted at all times in the interests of the South African Defence Force and Project Coast in the expenditure of Project Coast funds.

Basson is a cardiologist and physician by profession who rose to the rank of Brigadier in the defence force before being forced to take early retirement in 1992. He was 30 years old when he was appointed Project Officer of Project Coast in 1981. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC, Final Report, Chapter 6) found that: "Overall understanding of the programme, and its co-ordination and direction, were vested in the hands of one person, Dr. Basson, whose ability and (it is assumed) integrity were unquestioned both by those who served under him and by those to whom he had to report. It emerged in the hearings that the military command was dependent on Dr. Basson for the conduct and command of the programme, even at a time when there were sufficient indications that Dr. Basson might not be trustworthy and that there were serious aberrations in what was happening."

Basson was not the manager of the programme and nor did he authorise its budget. He reported to a committee made up of SADF generals, chaired by the Chief of the Defence Force. His immediate manager was the Surgeon General, Gen. Knobel, a former lecturer in anatomy. In 1998, after its long hearing about the chemical and biological warfare programme, the TRC found that Gen. Knobel:

  • "Knew of the production of murder weapons [under the auspices of the CBW programme] but refused to address the concerns that were raised with him, on the grounds that they did not fall under his authority."
  • "[That] he was nevertheless fully aware that these activities happened in facilities under his direct control and were perpetrated by staff under his chain of command," and
  • that he "[D]id not understand, by his own admission, the medical, chemical and technical aspects and implications of a programme that cost tens, if not hundreds of millions of rands."

It is hoped that Basson' trial will enable us to find answers to some of the remaining questions about the apartheid chemical and biological warfare programme, like how much international support South Africa received, and from where. Basson' defence lawyers have stated that his work took him to Moscow, several countries in western and eastern Europe, and Libya.

One of the fraud charges relates to an amount of $2.4 million which he is alleged to have told the Surgeon General was needed to secure the purchase of 500kg of methaqualone from Croatia in 1992. Basson claims the deal was being made through the former Minister of Energy Affairs in Croatia. Basson' defence lawyers have said that the money was used to purchase BZ and that Basson was assisted by, amongst others, the former military intelligence chief in Switzerland, Colonel Peter Regli.

The products of Project Coast included 1000 kg of methaqualone (quaalude) and 1000kg of MDMA (Ecstasy). Basson was arrested in 1997 for allegedly dealing in MDMA. His defence team claims that this deal was in fact an arms deal in which AK47s would be sold to Pakistan and the end-user was to be Iraq.

As yet the defence has not yet been required to substantiate or prove any of these claims.

An allegation made during the trial by Rein Botha, former National Intelligence Agency section chief for counter-intelligence, raises the possibility that Western intelligence agencies may have known about the South African CBW program. Botha said that in the late 1980s, a group of British intelligence agents visited Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL - the biological warfare facility) under the cover of being diplomats. If this is true it would indicate that the British intelligence services knew of the program and the failure of the South Africans to comply with the BWC.

A number of scientists who had been employed at the biological and chemical warfare facilities have testified against Basson. Some admitted to having developed murder weapons such as anthrax contaminated cigarettes and milk contaminated with botulinum toxin during testimony at the trial. Operators who were formerly part of clandestine military units have testified that they drugged South West African People' Organisation (SWAPO) prisoners of war. The prisoners were given an overdose of the muscle relaxants, scoline and tubarine, before they were thrown out of an aircraft into the sea. One of the defence force operators testified that he could not remember how many people he threw from the aircraft, but said it could have been hundreds. Basson is alleged to have given these operators the drugs.

In 1992 Basson was named as being involved in unauthorised activities by a commission headed by Gen. Pierre Steyn and appointed by the President, F.W. De Klerk. He was forced to take early retirement at the end of that year but was rehired by the ANC government after the democratic elections in 1994. He remains on the payroll of the Department of Health as a practising cardiologist and his legal fees are paid by the state. The trial recently took a three day recess in order for him to attend a cardiology conference in Cape Town.

This year the Health Professionals Council of South Africa, (HPCSA), the official health professionals association, appointed General Knobel to a two-person ad hoc committee to undertake a study and make recommendations about the ethics of health professionals' involvement in CBW programmes. The HPCSA has not taken any action to suspend Dr. Basson from practising as a medical doctor. Gen. Knobel remains an elected member of the health professionals council. Professor Stulting, a member of the HPCSA' Human Rights Ethics and Professional Conduct Committee, told the author in November 2000 that General Knobel was appointed to the committee because of "his extensive knowledge about CBW and international trends in this regard". Stulting added that he knew Basson personally and could vouch for him being an excellent cardiologist, but said that "something must have gone wrong, and we must find out what."

The failure to address the ethical issues the programme so starkly raises is not only confined to health professionals. None of the South African professional bodies representing scientists from any of the fields represented in the programme have made public statements about the ethics of the involvement of scientists in the development of chemical or biological weapons.

Chandré Gould is an associate researcher at the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town. The trial of Dr. Wouter Basson is being monitored by Marlene Burger on behalf of the Centre. Copies of weekly reports on the trial can be found on the CCR web site: http://ccrweb.ccr.uct.ac.za. © 2000 The Acronym Institute.