Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Apartheid: Biological and Chemical Warfare Program

Basson on Trial

On October 4, 1999, the criminal trial of Dr. Wouter Basson commenced in Pretorias High Court. 

Judge Willie Hartzenberg presided over the case. Anton Ackerman led the prosecution team and Bassons lawyer Jaap Cilliers led the defense team. 

Cilliers and Basson after the trial
Cilliers and Basson after the trial
According to an article by Anton La Guardia, Basson, nicknamed Dr. Death by the media, initially faced 67 charges, which were listed on a 270-page indictment. The indictment had charges ranging from fraud, theft and drug possession and trafficking to murder and conspiracy to murder, which purportedly occurred while working on Project Coast. However, after a little more than one week into the trial, the judge dismissed six critical charges, including four charges of conspiracy to murder and two charges of murder. Basson denied any guilt and refused to seek amnesty from the TRC, which could protect him from any wrongdoing.

According to the BBC News, the charges were dismissed because the judge ruled that South African courts could not allow prosecution of crimes committed in other countries. Moreover, it was ruled that Basson was protected by the 1989 Namibian amnesty. Burgess and Purkitt stated that the judges decision severely damaged the states case because the dismissed murder charges were the only ones that placed Basson at the scene of the crime.          

During the proceeding months of the trial many witnesses were heard including, Theron, Pessarra and Bassons superiors and colleagues. In March 2000, a forensic auditor named Hennie Bruwer gave testimony concerning OSEOs investigation into Bassons financial dealings and alleged theft and fraud. To the prosecutions shock, Judge Hartzenberg exclaimed during their presentation of the evidence that he was, bored to death with the financial documents.

After suffering more harsh criticism handed down by the judge and being denied the opportunity to show important evidence, the prosecution adjourned for several weeks to deliberate. The incident opened considerable controversy over Judge Hartzenbergs objectivity. Ackerman was so enraged by the judges behavior and apparent bias in favor of the defense that he frequently remained absent from the proceedings and handed his duty to another prosecution attorney. It was rumored that the judge had already made his decision during the first few months of the trial. One and a half years after the trial began, the charges against Basson were dropped from 67 to 46

Although the prosecutions case was weakening over time, Professor Shandrack Gutto at the Center for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwaterstrand stated that the trial showed that there was little doubt that the apartheid government, went to great lengths to put drugs on the street, to try to poison innocent black people and infect them with all sorts of chemicals and diseases (Itano, July 2001). However there was uncertainty whether Basson would be found guilty for his alleged involvement in the unconventional methods utilized by the government. According to an article by Joel Pollack, even the judge claimed during the trial that it would not take much to convince him of Bassons innocence on some of the charges. After the testimony of nearly 200 witnesses, the prosecutors feared that the cards were stacked against them.

Wouter Basson in court
Wouter Basson in court
In July 2001, Basson presented his evidence to the court for the first time. He was the only witness to act in his own defense. According to Tim Butchers article South African Dr. Death learned from Saddam, Basson claimed he learned about weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Husseins regime.

Basson admitted that he was given free reign by his superiors while leading Project Coast. Moreover, he stated to the court that he traded information with whomever he chose and was financially assisted by people from around the world to acquire any materials he needed for his numerous projects. However, Basson stated to the court that he did nothing illegal as chief of Project Coast, further denying any guilt concerning the remaining 46 charges of theft, fraud and murder. In total, Basson spent 40 days on the stand giving testimony.

On April 11, 2002 cameras were allowed for the first time into the court to witness a surprising and unexpected twist in the case. The judge decided that all the 46 remaining charges against Basson be dropped. Gould and Burgers Trial Report stated that the defense team successfully argued that under the Namibia constitution, Basson must be granted indemnity from prosecution for any and all activities that took place in Namibia. In 1920 South Africa was given a mandate over the area by the League of Nations. When the United Nations came into being, it tried to have South Africa continue its administration under a UN trusteeship -- instead, South Africa annexed South-West Africa, which is now called Namibia.

Judge Hartzenberg accepted the defense plea and Bassons version of events, thus granting him amnesty. Hartzenberg then rejected the testimony of all of the prosecutions 153 witnesses. He stated that the prosecution was unable to prove beyond all doubt that Basson was guilty on every count. The decision was greeted with applause from Bassons supporters in the courtroom. However, the general public was less enthusiastic about the judgment, specifically those who lost loved ones during the apartheid regime.

Wouter Basson after verdict
Wouter Basson after verdict (Associated Press)

The ANCs spokesman Smuts Ngonyama condemned the verdict, The justice system has let us down on this case. Chandre Gould stated that the judgment especially surprising, considering that Basson was the only witness to act in his own defense and that no documents were ever presented by his defense that supported his testimony. Many South Africans believed the trial discredited the ANC regime, as well as the TRC because of their inability to prevent Bassons acquittal. Others believe that the verdict proves even more the need for the TRC and ANC.

The state rebuked the full acquittal granted to Basson and threatened to appeal the judgment, citing legal inaccuracies. In total, the trial lasted 30 months and was the longest running and most expensive trial in the history of South Africa. The state was responsible for paying the costs of the hearing and Bassons legal fees, which amounted to a staggering $2 million (R20m).

During most of 2002 and the beginning of 2003, Basson spent his new found freedom traveling around the world as a guest speaker on cardiology, biological warfare and stress management. He has also restarted his private practice as a heart surgeon. Basson claimed that he plans to write several books about chemical and biological warfare.

However, it is likely that he will await the outcome of the states appeal before he begins a writing career. Moreover, there are rumors that there are plans to retry Basson in other African countries in connection with his activities in Project Coast. Therefore, the case against Basson may not be entirely over for quite some time.

The most recent known activities of Basson included a three-day long secret meeting with U.S. law enforcement officials at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria in July 2003. U.S. agents questioned Basson about bio-toxins from South Africas CBW program that were thought to have been destroyed by Basson, but have lately resurfaced. There was concern that the potentially harmful agents had fallen into the wrong hands.

The U.S. obtained information that many of the CBW agents were indeed not eliminated, as the South African government claimed in the late 1990s. Instead, it has been suggested that unknown or unidentified individuals sold many of the deadly toxins once produced by the now extinct Project Coast to private buyers around the world.  According to an article by Joby Warrick, Basson was unable to guarantee U.S. officials that all the lethal agents or secret government documents left over from the project he worked on were accounted for. Moreover, he suggested that there was a possibility that scientists working for Project Coast could have smuggled out some of the products developed in the front company labs once controlled by Basson.

During the interview, Basson was believed to have struck a deal with the officials that none of the information he revealed could be used against him in the future in a court of law. There was a real possibility that he could be retried by the state for activities conducted under Project Coast and he did not want the information to be used against him. Warrick stated that Bassons reason for allowing the interview to proceed was to once and for all clear his record with the United States government.

Whether his record will ever be cleared with the families who lost loved ones due to Bassons alleged activities with the CBW program during the apartheid regime is another question.

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