Death FlightsDuring the first week of May 2000, Judge Willie Hartzenberg and the crowded courtroom of Pretoria’s High Court heard the grizzly confession of Johan Theron, a former information officer of South Africa’s apartheid government’s 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.
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 Theron’s acts took place in 1983 in northern Kwazulu-Natal, Africa. According to LoBaido’s 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 Theron’s 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 Africa’s 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 Africa’s chemical and biological warfare (CBW) program, readily supplied him with the lethal drugs, which he used on a majority of his victims.
Theron’s testimony and confession was a critical part of the trial of South Africa’s 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.
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 Basson’s first or last death flight. In fact, according to Michael Schmidt’s article for South Africa’s 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.
Most of the charges brought against Basson were in connection with his activities while heading South Africa’s 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.
Project CoastSouth Africa has been developing chemical weapons since the beginning of World War I. The development of such weapons was South Africa’s response to the increasing threat of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) use from other countries. The establishment of the 1925 Geneva Convention, which banned the use of such weapons in warfare, temporarily decreased tensions concerning the threat. However, South Africa did not entirely cease production and research of CBW following the Geneva Convention. In fact, during World War II, South Africa sidestepped the convention protocol and began planning a more extensive CBW program, to protect the country from the threat of the Nazi regime.
Following the war, the South African Defense Force (SADF) continued with CBW research and development, but on a much smaller scale. Much of the CBW produced during that time was tear gas, CX powder and mustard gas. The non-lethal agents were utilized mostly to control crowds.
It was not until the 1970’s that South Africa’s CBW program began stepping up production of more destructive agents, despite the ratification of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BTWC) in 1975. The reasoning behind the increased production of more aggressive biological and chemical agents was to prevent a total Communist onslaught from the Soviet Union and Cuban-backed regimes, which threatened a complete takeover of Mozambique and Angola during the mid to late 1970’s. It was believed that the Cuban troops deployed in those regions at the time had chemical weapons, which the South African government feared they would use.
The apartheid government’s largest opponent was the Soviet-sponsored Marxist African National Congress (ANC), which was first established in the 1920’s. In order to gain control of the region, the Russians sent masses of arms to the Angolans to use in their fight against white Afrikaners and the apartheid government. According to Anthony LoBaido, the Russians hoped to take control of South Africa’s mineral treasures, which included diamonds, titanium and zirconium oxide.Much like South Africa’s right-wing apartheid regime, the crimes committed by the ANC were vast and brutal. Many civilians and government officials were ruthlessly murdered in the name of liberation. ANC soldiers who refused to fight were physically and psychologically tortured and murdered in death camps located in Angola. The ANC’s primary goal was to wage a campaign against the white-led regime that threatened to suppress them at any means.
In 1976, the black residents of a large township in Johannesburg rose up against the white Afrikaners’ police and the apartheid regime after black students were gunned down while protesting the compulsory teaching of the Afrikaans language. The incident, known as the Soweto uprising, led to the alleged further production and use of the CBW by the SADF. Moreover, between 1976 and 1979 a war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) caused increasing political and racial tensions within South Africa.Such tensions were believed to have also led to the use of CBW by the SADF and the continued enhancement and extension of the ongoing CBW program. According to Gould and Folb’s article, The South African Chemical and Biological Warfare Program: An Overview, South Africa’s Prime Minister P.W. Botha called on the country’s security forces to devise a more efficient method in which to deal with internal, as well as external conflicts. The SADF’s response to Botha’s request was the implementation of a new and highly secretive CBW program in April 1981, code-named Project Coast.
At that time, Wouter Basson, a 30-year-old cardiologist and personal physician to Prime Minister Botha, was hired by South Africa’s Surgeon General, Major N.J. Nieuwoudt, to work for the SADF’s medical military unit known as the 7th SAMS Battalion. His first duties were to travel to the west and collect information about other countries’ CBW capabilities, as well as to make contacts in the international scientific and medical community for intelligence purposes. That same year Basson traveled to several European countries and returned with important information from his fact-finding trip, which he promptly reported to the SADF.Basson learned that the CBW programs in Western Europe were not defensive, but rather offensive in nature, which caused concern for the South African government. In order to keep pace with other western countries, the SADF put plans for Project Coast in full gear. Basson became the project officer of Project Coast and was given the task of bringing South Africa’s CBW program up to date.
The aim of the new program was primarily to conduct highly secretive research into the various aspects of CBW warfare, including offensive and defensive capabilities. Moreover, the program aimed to develop CBW, as well as provide conventional and covert support of CBW production, technology and industrial operations. In short, Project Coast included the research and production of offensive and defensive CBW weapons, which explicitly violated the BTWC agreement.
According to a paper by Burgess and Purkitt, The Rollback of South Africa’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Program, Basson managed all aspects of Project Coast. His duties included the recruitment of approximately 200 medical and scientific researchers from around the world, management of annual funds of $10 million and the establishment and supervision of the program and related companies. Basson’s activities remained largely unsupervised because those people above him in the chain of command lacked the scientific experience and knowledge essential for the operation and management of the project.
In an effort to maintain secrecy, Basson created four front companies that served various purposes. Gould and Folb claim the front companies were created for three primary reasons: 1) to maintain secrecy by making it difficult to link the production of CBW facilities to the military, 2) to procure chemical and biological related substances, which normally would have been difficult for the military to obtain, 3) to discreetly channel funds from defense accounts to the research facilities. The four front companies were Delta G Scientific Company, Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL), Protechnik and Infadel, which divided into two companies in 1989, D. John Truter Financial Consultants and Sefmed Information Services.
Front CompaniesThe first of the four front companies established by Basson was Delta G Scientific Company in November 1982. Delta G. was primarily responsible for the research, production and development of biological and chemical agents that ranged from irritating to lethal. Philip Mijburgh headed Delta G. and reported directly to Basson. A majority of the products developed at the company were tested at Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL) which was established in November of that same year.
RRL, initially headed by Daan Goosen, was primarily responsible for the research, development and production of a range of biological and chemical pathogens to be used for defensive and allegedly offensive purposes. Some of the agents produced and tested at RRL during the 1980’s included, anthrax, botulinum, cholera, plague, ricin, E. coli, Ebola and Marburg virus. Burgess and Purkitt state that genetic engineering research was also a component of Project Coast and led to the research of lethal bacterial agents which would affect only non-white people.
Protechnik was a large and highly secretive nuclear, biological and chemical warfare plant. Although it researched and produced many agents, it primarily developed defensive equipment for use against chemical weapons. The fourth front company, Infadel, dealt to a smaller degree with the research and development of the CBW. The company dealt mostly with the financial and administrative management related to RRL and Delta G. It is believed that Infadel, in particular was established in order to secretly channel money between military and research facilities.According to Gould and Folb, not all of the scientists and medical staff employed by the front companies were aware of their role in the development and utilization of the CBW they researched and produced. The reason that many of the employees knew little about the Project Coast’s objectives was primarily because of the intense secrecy surrounding the program. Moreover, many of them believed that the country was in a state of war and they were merely performing their patriotic duty to protect their country.
Allegedly, a large portion of the research and development of the CBW produced by the front companies under the direction of Basson was used in the assassination and destruction of anti-apartheid leaders, militants and other regime enemies. Basson was purportedly involved in several lethal covert operations that were believed to have led to the elimination of hundreds of regime enemies by use of various deadly toxins. The operations that were claimed to have occurred in the early to mid 1980’s were “Operation Barnacle” and “Operation Duel.” Both operations were said to have resulted in the deaths of several hundred military prisoners and enemies of the state. Many of the bodies were allegedly disposed of by dumping them into the ocean.
There were also claims by black leaders in South Africa, Namibia and Angola that chemical weapons were used in an effort to control protesting crowds and against guerilla militants. The military and police were said to have frequently used substances believed to be more dangerous than standard tear gas on crowds, which supposedly caused long term health damage to their recipients. However, the South African government of the time repeatedly denied such accusations and even claimed that it was the black troops who used chemical weapons against them.
Assassination for God, Country & MoneyDuring the late 1980’s, Basson was hired to work for the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), which was established in order to prevent popular black military leaders from taking control of the government. It was believed that Basson supplied the CCB with lethal CBW to use against any possible threats to the South African apartheid regime. It was believed that Basson was connected with several assassination attempts ordered by the CCB to eliminate such threats.
In 1989, there was an assassination attempt on Rev. Frank Chikane, General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches and anti-apartheid activist. Rev. Chikane’s clothes were saturated with a lethal nerve poison, purportedly produced at one of the front companies controlled by Basson. According to reports later made by Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), it was believed that Basson was directly behind the attempted assassination. It was the first of three such attempts to poison Rev. Chikane. Basson was believed to be the mastermind behind a similar assassination attempt against Justice Minister of the ANC government Dullah Omar, another anti-apartheid leader.During the 1980’s Basson continued to travel to many countries in an effort to obtain information and make contacts about foreign chemical and biological weapons programs. Basson was known to have traveled to countries, such as Denmark, Switzerland, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Iran, Columbia, the Philippines, U.S., U.K., Germany and other European countries. It is believed that he was able to obtain a substantial amount of information that could be utilized in South Africa’s CBW program. In fact, it has been suggested that many of the countries Basson visited could have assisted in the development of South Africa’s CBW program, although there is little substantiating evidence.
While visiting many of the countries, Basson set up several other front companies. In actuality, the companies mostly existed on paper. According to Burgess and Purkitt, it was suspected that Basson and some of his colleagues created the shell companies in an effort to launder millions of dollars, allegedly skimmed from activities related to Project Coast.
Reinventing the Devil
After assuming office in 1990, President F.W. de Klerk began a series of politically-motivated changes within the structure of the country. In February of that year, de Klerk lifted a ban on the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, as well as several other organizations that were previously deemed as enemies of the state. The lifting of the ban eventually led to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Less than two months after the ban was lifted, de Klerk ordered a stop to the production and the beginning of destruction of deadly agents produced by the CBW program. This posed a serious threat to Project Coast.The SADF and Basson’s focus turned towards a different area, that of non-lethal chemical substances, and began the production of four agents not banned by the government. Gould and Folb list the chemicals produced by the CBW program:
Mandrax or Quaaludes (sedatives)
CR (a potent and irritating riot control agent)
BZ (psychoactive incapacitant)
Some of these substances were produced in extremely large quantities.
Between 1992 and 1993 more than 900 hundred kilos of a crystalline form of Ecstasy was produced under Project Coast. Years later it would be counted among missing items produced under Basson’s leadership. The CBW program not only produced Ecstasy, as well as other substances, but also imported some of them. For example, in 1991 Basson asked then Surgeon General Neils Knobel for $2.4 million so that he could import 500 kg’s of Ecstasy into South Africa from Croatia, which was approved.
Initially, it was unclear why such vast amounts of Ecstasy were imported and eventually produced. Many believed it was created for two primary purposes, to be used in a new form to temporarily incapacitate rioting crowds and to be distributed among the black townships to promote drug usage and dependency. According to Sunday Times writers Breda and Trench, scientists working on the drug claimed that it was used primarily in experiments to create drug-laced tear gas.In January 1992, Mozambican government forces were purportedly attacked with CBW by the South African apartheid regime. Several hundred commando soldiers claimed to see a plane flying in the area above them, which was thought to have released a lethal substance. Within a half an hour, many of the troops began to get sick. Four soldiers died and many were hospitalized.
The incident was investigated by the U.S., U.K. and UN, which found that the symptoms experienced by the soldiers were consistent with that related to BZ agent exposure. However, the results could not be confirmed because too much time elapsed between the alleged attack and the investigation. It was suspected that the front company Protechnik was the most likely source of the lethal agent and that Basson and some of his colleagues were possibly behind the attack.
The U.S. and U.K. began to become concerned about Project Coast and its leadership following the Mozambique incident. The two countries pressured South Africa on Project Coast. It was feared that the products developed by the program and related top-secret information might fall into the wrong hands and become an even greater threat to the world than initially believed.
In January of 1993, following a high-level government investigation into South Africa’s secret programs, Project Coast was decelerated. Eventually in March 1993 Basson was given an early retirement from his position as head of Project Coast. There were several suspected reasons behind the project’s deceleration and Basson’s release from his position. It was believed that Basson was released allegedly due to misappropriation of funds and the concern that he could sell secrets to other countries.
Basson was given a one-year contract to dissolve the remnants of Project Coast. He was ordered by de Klerk to destroy all CBW research and stop all related research. To date, there are still concerns whether all the CBW agents were destroyed or merely relocated by Basson. What is known is that hundreds of kilos worth of chemicals and agents were unaccounted for when inventory was taken during a government investigation.
Following the disintegration of Project Coast, Basson and his colleagues were believed to have made a considerable fortune from the privatization of some of the South African-based front companies in1993. Many of the scientists were released from their positions and many of the shareholders were paid off by the SADF. During this time, the Office of Serious Economic Offenses began an investigation into Basson’s business dealings and rapid accumulation of wealth.
Basson was not out of a job for long after he left Project Coast. Immediately after his retirement, the government rehired him to work for a state-run transportation and infrastructure corporation called Transnet. It was suspected that Basson was also involved in other, more secretive work at the same time. Between October of 1993 and October 1995 he made five trips to Libya for reasons that were unclear. The U.S. and U.K. governments were suspicious of Basson’s activities and believed he traveled to Libya specifically to sell CBW secrets, although their concerns remained unsubstantiated.
In mid-1993 to 1994 South Africa was in the midst of a new era and began a historical transition from white Afrikaans pro-apartheid government to black majority ANC rule. This followed after a yearlong peace negotiation between the two regimes for national unity. In April 1994, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s new president, an event that would greatly change Dr. Basson’s fate.In 1995, at the urging of the U.S. and U.K. governments, Basson was re-employed by the ANC government as a defense force surgeon. The U.S. and U.K. believed that Mandela would have better control over Basson’s activities if he remained under the watchful eye and employment of the South African government. According to an article by Desmond Bolw, Basson was rehired because it was feared that he would give up sensitive governmental secrets, especially those concerning worldwide terrorist organizations connected with South Africa. Moreover, it was also feared that Basson might reveal highly secretive information concerning other countries CBW programs and their working relationship with South Africa’s apartheid regime.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established in 1995 to investigate crimes related to the apartheid era government and the ANC, began an exploration of the SADF’s chemical and biological warfare program in 1996. It was determined by the TRC after a yearlong investigation that it was highly probable that the pro-apartheid South African government’s CBW program used lethal toxins in an offensive show of force against black guerilla militants.
Upon further investigation, it was revealed that Basson was connected with many of the alleged atrocities committed by the government at the time. In January 1997, the CIA tipped off the South African government that Basson was attempting to flee the country. That same month he was arrested in a sting operation in Pretoria and caught in possession of one thousand Ecstasy pills and four trunks full of secretive documents related to Project Coast. Investigators also found in the trunks suspicious letters from contacts around the world.
One of the more interesting items found at the time of Basson’s arrest was a “Verkope Lys” or sales list (view the list on page 97 of “The Rollback of South Africa” pdf document) that were believed to contain items produced by RRL purportedly for use as murder weapons. Some of the deadly items mentioned on the list included: cigarettes with anthrax, botulinum laced milk, poisoned whiskey and chocolates. Investigators believed that the list could be the “smoking gun” they were looking for, connecting the CBW program with the illegal and offensive use of lethal agents.
The discovery of other documents found in Basson’s possession led TRC investigators to suspect that he might have been involved in transferring his vast knowledge about South Africa’s CBW program to other countries such as Iraq and Libya. Furthermore, it was also suspected that Basson could have traded information he obtained from foreign CBW programs with other governments around the world. Following the arrest, the TRC began an investigation into Project Coast and Basson.
In November 1997, the TRC enlisted the help of the Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa (NIZA) to investigate the activities related to Project Coast and those involved in the CBW program, specifically Wouter Basson. A Dutch researcher who worked for the institute, Klaas de Jonge, led the investigation. His report concerning the involvement of South Africa’s apartheid regime in activities including CBW, hit squads and other operations were listed in The Truth Commission Files and kept highly secret throughout its development. The information obtained by de Jong helped the TRC to build its case against Basson.
According to de Jong, those who worked for the apartheid regime were not forthcoming with information concerning the CBW program. Despite the limited cooperation, enough information was obtained through a multitude of other sources, which led to the conclusion that regime operations had one primary goal in mind, “the elimination of black opposition and its political allies.” Moreover, de Jong suggested that the program’s activities led by Basson and his team either directly or indirectly resulted in, at least, a gross violation of human rights, fraud and theft and, at most, mass murder.
During the time the TRC was investigating Basson, he was also being investigated by three other parties including: the Office for Serious Economic Offences (OSEO), The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the Gauteng Attorney-General’s Special Investigation Team. There were fears by the other parties that the TRC’s case would interfere with the other ongoing cases, which led to a slow down in the Commission’s investigation. However, with the help of the OSEO, the TRC’s was able to obtain enough vital information that enabled them to continue with legal proceedings against Basson.
On July 31, 1998 after months of wrangling between Basson’s attorneys and state representatives, he appeared before the TRC and gave evidence for approximately 12 hours. To the state’s dismay, very little evidence was actually revealed because much of the questioning was cut short by Basson’s attorneys who consistently argued the legal technicalities of the case. Yet, the TRC was able to establish some important facts.
According to a report into the investigation released by the TRC, the Commission learned that Basson was the primary decision maker and coordinator of the activities conducted under Project Coast. Moreover, much of his activities remained unquestioned by his superiors, who repeatedly allocated large sums of money for projects, for which they seemed to have little interest or knowledge. In short, the evidence provided by Basson showed that he virtually had free reign to conduct Project Coast operations as he saw fit. Thus, if charges of illegal conduct were discovered during a trial, Basson would bear the brunt of any sentence imposed.
Basson on TrialOn October 4, 1999, the criminal trial of Dr. Wouter Basson commenced in Pretoria’s High Court.
Judge Willie Hartzenberg presided over the case. Anton Ackerman led the prosecution team and Basson’s lawyer Jaap Cilliers led the defense team.
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 judge’s decision severely damaged the state’s 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 Basson’s superiors and colleagues. In March 2000, a forensic auditor named Hennie Bruwer gave testimony concerning OSEO’s investigation into Basson’s financial dealings and alleged theft and fraud. To the prosecution’s 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 Hartzenberg’s objectivity. Ackerman was so enraged by the judge’s 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 prosecution’s 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 Basson’s innocence on some of the charges. After the testimony of nearly 200 witnesses, the prosecutors feared that the cards were stacked against them.
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 Butcher’s article South African “Dr. Death” learned from Saddam, Basson claimed he learned about weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein’s 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 Burger’s 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 Basson’s version of events, thus granting him amnesty. Hartzenberg then rejected the testimony of all of the prosecution’s 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 Basson’s supporters in the courtroom. However, the general public was less enthusiastic about the judgment, specifically those who lost loved ones during the apartheid regime.
The ANC’s 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 Basson’s 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 Basson’s 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 state’s 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 Africa’s 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 1990’s. 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 Basson’s 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 Basson’s alleged activities with the CBW program during the apartheid regime is another question.
BibliographyBBC News (October 12, 1999). “Africa mass murder judge dismisses key charges”. World Section,
Breda, Yvette van and Trench, Andrew (June 14, 1998). “What is Basson Hiding?” South Africa’s Sunday Times News Paper online. To be found at
Burgess, Stephen and Purkitt, Helen (April 2001). The Rollback of South Africa’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Program. Air War College, Alabama.