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South Africa's 'Dr. Death' faces ethics inquiry

Wouter Basson ran the apartheid-era regime's germ and chemical warfare program, Project Coast. He is charged with manufacturing dangerous drugs, some of which allegedly were used on activists.

September 27, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Dr. Wouter Basson of South Africa faces an inquiry on unethical conduct involving the apartheid-era regime's secret germ and chemical warfare program.
Dr. Wouter Basson of South Africa faces an inquiry on unethical conduct… (Alexander Joe / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — In South Africa, they call him "Dr. Death."

Wouter Basson, who ran the apartheid government's secret germ and chemical warfare program, Project Coast, once was accused of trying to create poisons that were lethal only to blacks. He was acquitted by a judge in 2002 of charges that included murder and drug possession.

But more than 20 years after he ran Project Coast, Basson's quiet life as a cardiologist in Cape Town is being threatened.

He is facing an inquiry by the Health Professions Council of South Africa for unethical conduct. If found guilty, he could be struck off the medical roll and lose his right to practice.

Basson is charged with manufacturing dangerous drugs in the 1980s and '90s, some of which allegedly were used on antiapartheid activists abducted by security forces.

He has acknowledged that he was given a free hand and almost unlimited budget to run Project Coast, which designed, tested, manufactured and deployed toxic weapons. He traveled the world, researching biological weapons.

Steven Miles, a medical ethics expert at the University of Minnesota, told a council hearing Tuesday in Pretoria that Basson's work on chemical and germ warfare had violated medical ethics and breached the laws of humanity. Basson's work was repugnant to the conscience of humankind, Miles said.

"The ethical core of medicine is to promote health. Dr. Basson's work risked causing disabilities, deaths and permanent brain damage," Miles said, adding that a doctor's moral duty to save lives was the same in times of peace and war.

Much of what Basson did was top secret. He ran a unit called Delta G, a secret chemical warfare facility that tested 24 different incapacitating agents during his tenure, according to evidence at his 2002 trial.

Basson said at his trial that he had no moral problem creating weapons with tear gas or drugs. But he argued that he was only following orders during the years he worked for the apartheid military, from 1981 to '93.

The health council has dropped several charges against Basson for lack of evidence, including some stemming from the alleged use of South African troops to test drugs such as Mandrax, ecstasy, tear gas and an incapacitating agent, BZ.

He still faces charges before the council involving thousands of mortar bombs allegedly equipped with tear gas, to be sent to Angola, cyanide capsules that would enable apartheid operatives to commit suicide and drugs aimed at disorienting prisoners.

Miles said Basson acted unethically by supplying a paralyzing drug to agents for use in abductions of antiapartheid activists outside South Africa. It was known at the time that the drug, scoline, could cause respiratory failure, muscle damage and kidney failure, he said.

An article Tuesday in the South African newspaper, Daily Maverick, criticized Basson for what it called his lack of remorse.

"He stands up and says he would do it all again, if confronted with the same decisions. As historical figures go, he's pretty unique on that score," the article says. "Because as a man who provided the drugs, the biological weapons, for the apartheid regime, what he did was really horrendous. It was he who literally ran the whole show in the theatre of horror."

Basson told reporters Monday that he just wanted to get on with his job as a doctor.

"I closed this chapter 20 years ago," he said. "All I want is to continue serving the country as a medical professional."

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

facebook.com/latimesdixon

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