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Horrific Tales Emerge in Apartheid Hearings

South Africa: Witnesses describe weapons, drugs and poisons allegedly designed to be used against blacks.

June 19, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Government scientist Jan Lourens knew something wasn't right. His military boss had instructed him to create assassination "applicators"--from umbrellas that fire lethal pellets to screwdrivers spring-loaded with poison.

Lourens dutifully did the job, but the bioengineer also went to the top, voicing his concerns to the head of South Africa's chemical and biological weapons program, Surgeon General Niel Knobel.

"I understood him to say he had developed instruments or gadgets that would be used either to kill or maim individuals," Knobel testified Thursday about his meeting with Lourens in 1993. "I said, 'I am sorry. I do not know about it, and I don't want to know about it.' "

With that blunt admission, Knobel laid bare the latest extraordinary revelation in South Africa's inquiry into apartheid-era weapons programs that were aimed at the country's black population: Even a white scientist with a pang of conscience had nowhere to turn less than a year before historic elections brought black-majority rule.

"I have to admit to you, maybe I should have acted more strongly," Knobel said later.

His testimony capped more than a week of horrific disclosures before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a government body charged with exposing human rights violations of the apartheid era of racial separation. More testimony is expected next month.

In two years of hearings involving brutal killings and sinister plots of every imaginable twist, commissioners said Thursday, nothing has been so unsettling as the revelations about the top-secret weapons program code-named "Project Coast."

"It is so evil--that is the overwhelming sense one has," said Yasmin Sooka, one of five commissioners hearing evidence. "We are finally beginning to see the level to which the former state descended to."

Former and current government scientists have testified about efforts to develop a bacteria that would kill only "pigmented people" and a vaccine that would sterilize blacks. They have revealed discussions about poisoning Nelson Mandela, now South Africa's president, during the final years of his imprisonment to "induce brain damage" and make him incapable of governing once freed.

They have told of chocolates laced with botulism, cigarettes drugged with anthrax and whiskey poisoned with weedkiller--all intended to eliminate enemies of the white-minority regime. They have even disclosed a scheme to kill prominent anti-apartheid activist Frank Chikane--now a top advisor to Deputy President Thabo Mbeke--by poisoning his underwear. The plot failed when Chikane fell ill in the United States, where doctors detected the toxin in his skin.

On Thursday, the commission delved into questions about plans for large-scale use of narcotics--from powerful amphetamines like ecstasy to LSD to marijuana--allegedly as crowd-control weapons. There were few specifics.

But since documentation is scant, some investigators suspect that the drugs were, in fact, dumped into black areas to encourage addiction and sap the resolve to resist.

"So this was a list of murder weapons?" one of the medical researchers was queried last week by a Truth Commission investigator.

Yes, was the reply.

"When you had stories of people's skulls being bashed, and those fed to the lions, you always said these things are being done by the scum of society," Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebza, a former human rights lawyer who was imprisoned under apartheid, said during a break from the testimony. "But when you hear evidence of people in white duster coats with stethoscopes sticking out of their pockets--scientists, the so-called cream of the crop of Afrikanerdom--then you ask yourself, 'Is there anything worse that I am likely to hear?' "

On Thursday, attention focused on the undisputed mastermind of Project Coast, Dr. Wouter Basson, a quixotic heart specialist from the capital, Pretoria. The cardiologist was supposed to testify himself but refused to show up--the official explanation was that he was in the operating room with a patient--while his lawyers sought to legally block his appearance through the courts.

Basson faces criminal charges for conspiracy to murder, obstruction of justice, fraud worth $10 million and other alleged wrongdoing stemming from his checkered tenure with the South African military. He was forced to retire from the army in 1993 when suspicions about his deeds mounted. But he was later hired as a civilian employee by both the former apartheid regime and the current African National Congress-led government.

The ANC has said it employed Basson to keep him under watch and ensure that he did not sell military secrets abroad; the government remains so concerned about copycats getting hold of South Africa's abandoned chemical and biological weapons program that it unsuccessfully sought to close the Truth Commission hearings to the public.

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