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Court Denies S. Africa's Request for New Trial for 'Dr. Death'

A South African appeals court has denied the state's request for a new trial for the former head of the apartheid regime's chemical and biological weapons program. The state had argued that the judge who acquitted the official was biased.

The Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein has refused to allow the state to re-try the apartheid-era germ warfare boss, Dr. Wouter Basson.

The state based most of its appeal on the judge's refusal to remove himself from the case. Early in the trial, prosecuting attorneys accused Judge Willie Hartzenberg of bias in favor of Dr. Basson, and they argued that he should have recused himself.

But the appeals court said the state did not prove that the judge was biased, and it refused to overturn the acquittal. The court also blasted the state's attorneys, saying their appeal application was badly prepared and inadequate.

The Pretoria High Court acquitted Dr. Basson last year of a string of charges, including murder, drug trafficking, fraud, and theft.

The prosecution said Dr. Basson, nicknamed Dr. Death by the media, committed most of the alleged crimes as part of his official duties in the apartheid government, where he was the head of the notorious Project Coast. The project developed poisons, drugs, and weapons that the apartheid government used against blacks. Dr. Basson's team was trying to develop a chemical or biological weapon that would only affect blacks.

The prosecution put about 200 witnesses on the stand and presented extensive documentary evidence it said linked Dr. Basson to the alleged crimes. The defense called only one witness in response, Dr. Basson.

During the trial, Judge Hartzenberg said he was bored by some of the prosecution's detailed evidence. He controversially dismissed some of the charges against Dr. Basson on the grounds that the alleged crimes were committed in Namibia, which was then a South African protectorate.

Judge Hartzenberg said he accepted Dr. Basson's version of events. He said the prosecution failed to prove its case, and he acquitted the doctor of all charges.

Many social and political commentators condemned the acquittal. In a letter to a local newspaper, former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu called it a big blow to the credibility of the judicial process.

Some officials from the apartheid government saw the verdict as a vindication of the old regime.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Tutu, could have granted Dr. Basson amnesty from prosecution if the germ-warfare scientist had applied for it. But like many members of the apartheid-era military, he refused to take part in the Commission's effort.

He is one of very few apartheid-era government officials to be prosecuted since the amnesty hearings ended.

Dr. Basson's original trial lasted two and one-half years and cost the state $2 million, making it one of the longest and most expensive criminal trials in South African history.

Since his acquittal, Wouter Basson has gone back to his medical practice as a heart surgeon.