Judge acquits leader of apartheid chemical and biological weapons program of all charges

Thursday, April 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) _ The head of apartheid South Africa's chemical and biological weapons program was acquitted Thursday on all 46 counts of murder, fraud and drug dealing.

Pretoria High Court Judge Willie Hartzenberg said the prosecution failed during the 2 1/2-year trial to prove that Dr. Wouter Basson committed any crimes.

The charges against Basson, the cardiologist the South African media has dubbed ``Dr. Death,'' included murder conspiracy, fraud and drug possession.

During the trial, scientists and former government agents described Basson as a calculating man who headed a secret agency _ with front companies across the world _ focused on finding better ways to kill apartheid's opponents.

During the trial, prosecutors accused the judge of blatantly favoring Basson.

The government plans to appeal the verdict to a panel of judges for review, said Sipho Ngwema of the National Director of Public Prosecutions.

Witnesses said the apartheid government's chemical warfare unit, Project Coast, looked into creating poisons and anti-fertility drugs that would only affect blacks and hoarded enough cholera and anthrax to start epidemics.

The unit laced sugar with salmonella, cigarettes with anthrax and chocolate and beer with poison in efforts to create more effective assassination tools, according to testimony.

The intended victims included former President Nelson Mandela and several African National Congress leaders who are now high-ranking government officials, according to testimony.

The program also produced huge amounts of the drugs Ecstasy and Mandrax, witnesses said.

Witnesses also said Basson siphoned millions of dollars from Project Coast, to finance a lavish, globe-trotting lifestyle.

Basson has denied the fraud charges, said he never provided deadly muscle relaxants and other poisons to kill apartheid opponents and insisted he had innocently been embroiled in a drug deal he knew nothing about.

During his testimony, Basson described heading the secret program as a romantic life of international espionage that led him to clandestine meetings with agents across the globe.

Basson boasted he helped save Iran from hunger by teaching it how to combat potato blight and said he reined in a hepatitis-A epidemic racing through South Africa's military.

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

Basson, who suffered a stroke in February, appeared healthy as he listened to the judge's decision, which took Hartzenberg all day to read in Afrikaans.

Basson worked as a cardiologist at a state hospital during much of the trial. He was asked to resign last May.

Revelations about Basson's program exploded in 1997, when he was arrested for allegedly selling Ecstasy to a police informant and investigators discovered documents about Project Coast.

Since the trial began in October 1999, the charges against Basson have slowly been whittled down.

Hartzenberg immediately dropped six counts against Basson because they took place abroad.

Among them were charges he conspired to kill two apartheid opponents in London with a poison-pellet firing umbrella and supplied muscle relaxants used to kill more than 200 Namibian prisoners, whose lifeless bodies were then dropped into the ocean from a plane.

Hartzenberg dropped another 15 charges without comment last year.