Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Apartheid: Biological and Chemical Warfare Program

Death Flights

During the first week of May 2000, Judge Willie Hartzenberg and the crowded courtroom of Pretorias High Court heard the grizzly confession of Johan Theron, a former information officer of South Africas apartheid governments Special Forces. The small, balding, 57-year-old man told the court that he was involved in the deaths of more than 200 anti-apartheid political prisoners between 1979 and 1987. The deaths, he claimed, were merely a part of his job.

South African High Court in Pretoria
South African High Court in Pretoria (Associated Press)
According to Theron, the executions of hundreds of prisoners were a solution to the increasing prison inmate population of several defense force camps. In fact, he told the court that the disposal of the prisoners was primarily his idea, one that he initially proposed to his superiors in 1979. Theron stated that he used various methods to kill the prisoners, including burning, beating, poisoning and strangulation.

One of Therons acts took place in 1983 in northern Kwazulu-Natal, Africa. According to LoBaidos article The Secrets of Project Coast, Theron claimed to have been instructed by his superior, Dr. Wouter Basson, to tie up three prisoners to a tree overnight and smear their bodies with jelly-like lethal toxins. The primary aim was to test the toxic agent to see if it was capable of causing death. To Therons dismay, the men did not die as easily as he expected.

The next day, Theron found the men still clinging to life. He decided to get rid of the men in another way. He loaded them into a small plane and flew off towards the ocean. According to an article by South Africas Sunday Times, during the flight Theron claimed that he injected the three men with lethal muscle relaxants before dumping their bodies into the sea.  Theron further stated to the court that a majority of his victims were disposed of in a similar manner, by dumping them into the water some 100 miles off the coast.   

Poisoning was the preferred method used by Theron when he killed many of the political prisoners. They were injected with lethal drug cocktails, often administered into the heart, before being tossed into the water. Theron claimed that Dr. Wouter Basson, the former head of South Africas chemical and biological warfare (CBW) program, readily supplied him with the lethal drugs, which he used on a majority of his victims.

Therons testimony and confession was a critical part of the trial of South Africas Wouter Basson for alleged human rights abuses. Dr. Basson was implicated not only in supplying the drugs used to kill anti-apartheid political prisoners, but also in administering them himself.   In October 1999, Chris Pessarra, a retired French Foreign Legionnaire claimed he witnessed Basson injecting political prisoners with poison in their stomach during a flight over Mozambique territory. He said that these men were then thrown alive from an airplane in 1979. The victims were five guerrilla rebels believed to have been from the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army.

Chris Pessarra (on the ground) with plane
Chris Pessarra (on the ground) with plane (trial evidence)
Pessarra said that before the poisoned, unconscious men were thrown from the plane, they were dressed in camouflage uniforms and supplied with guns and false papers. They were then sprinkled with an unknown powdery substance, which he believed was poison or some kind of lethal chemical agent. He believed the powdery agent was meant to contaminate other rebel soldiers who may happen upon the bodies.

It was not believed to have been Bassons first or last death flight. In fact, according to Michael Schmidts article for South Africas Sunday Times, Basson was thought to have been involved in around 24 death flights between 1979 and 1987. In October 1999, Basson was put on trial for the attempted murder of the three men thrown from the plane, as described by Theron. He also faced trial for 63 more charges including, murder, fraud, embezzlement, drug possession and trafficking.

Wouter Basson before trial
Wouter Basson before trial (Associated Press)
Most of the charges brought against Basson were in connection with his activities while heading South Africas secretive chemical and biological warfare program. The CBW program became one of the first CBW government programs to have been publicly exposed to a worldwide audience. It was also considered to be one of the most deadly government-sponsored CBW programs in recent times. 

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