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Thursday, 11 April, 2002, 18:24 GMT 19:24 UK
'Dr Death' acquitted in South Africa
Br Basson giving evidence at his trial
Dr Basson says he was obeying the white regime's orders
Dr Wouter Basson, the man who headed South Africa's apartheid-era germ warfare programme, has been acquitted on charges of murder, conspiracy, fraud and drug possession.

"I find the accused not guilty on all the charges," Judge Willie Hartzenberg said as the judgment was read out in the courtroom in Pretoria.


They (the prosecutors) had to prove beyond all doubt that the accused was guilty. That they did not do

Judge Willie Hartzenberg
Dr Basson, dubbed "Dr Death" by the media for his alleged attempts to perfect killing, showed little reaction, just smiled briefly as he was found not guilty on 46 charges.

The ruling African National Congress condemned the verdict as "outrageously bad," said ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama.

"The justice system has let us down on this case," he added, describing the verdict as "a clear case of the protection of an individual who has killed people".

Plans to appeal

Prosecutors have accused Mr Hartzenberg of favouring Mr Basson throughout the trial, and the government plans to appeal the verdict before a panel of judges, Sipho Ngwema, a spokesman for the National Director of Public Prosecutions said.

The court was packed with white supporters of the 51-year-old cardiologist and they applauded the decision when the decision was read out.

Anthrax
The unit's plans allegedly included lacing cigarettes with anthrax

"They (the prosecutors) had to prove beyond all doubt that the accused was guilty. That they did not do," Mr Hartzenberg added.

The crowd that came to hear the verdict included apartheid-era Defence Minister Magnus Malan, former military chief Constand Viljoen and former Surgeon-General Niel Knobel.

"To come to such a logical conclusion, to me, proves that South African courts are still good," Mr Viljoen said.

Truth Commission snubbed

In a trial lasting two and a half years, witnesses had testified that Project Coast, the programme Dr Basson headed, had tried to create poisons only lethal to blacks.

The doctor had refused to apply for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) - a stance seen by civil rights groups as proof he is unrepentant about his role under the white regime.

"For me the issue is not whether or not somebody gets found guilty, the real issue is whether or not the person is able to come to me and say, 'I did this and am very sorry'," said former anti-apartheid activist Reverend Frank Chikane.

Mr Chikane, now President Thabo Mbeki's chief of staff, was nearly killed by clothing allegedly poisoned by Project Coast.

Horrific experiments

Witnesses had testified to a catalogue of killing methods ranging from the grotesque to the horrific:

  • Project Coast sought to create "smart" poisons, which would only affect blacks, and hoarded enough cholera and anthrax to start epidemics.
  • Naked black men were tied to trees, smeared with a poisonous gel and left overnight to see if they would die. When the experiment failed, they were put to death with injections of muscle relaxants.
  • Weapon ideas included sugar laced with salmonella, cigarettes with anthrax, chocolates with botulism and whisky with herbicide.

'Following orders'

Dr Basson said at the trial he had only been following orders and portrayed himself as a scientist who had sought ways to combat potato blight and a hepatitis-A epidemic.

Responding to the charge that he had embezzled state funds, he said the government had practically provided him with a blank cheque for his work, which took him all over the world for clandestine meetings with agents.

He was arrested in 1997 on charges of selling ecstasy to a police informant - illegal drug production was one arm of Operation Coast's operations.

That arrest shed light on the germ warfare unit's work and Dr Basson finally went on trial in October 1999.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Barnaby Phillips
"He was charged with an astonishing array of crimes"
See also:

14 Nov 01 | Africa
28 Oct 98 | Africa
31 Jul 98 | Africa
31 Jul 98 | Africa
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