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Dr. Wouter BASSON






A.K.A.: "Dr. Death"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner - Former head of the country's secret chemical and biological warfare project, Project Coast, during the apartheid era
Number of victims: 0 - 230 +
Date of murders: 1992 - 1999
Date of birth: July 6, 1950
Victims profile: Men (SWAPO prisoners of war and South African Defence Force (SADF) members)
Method of murder: Poisoning (lethal triple cocktail of powerful muscle relaxants)
LocationNamibia/Mozambique/South Africa
Status: Acquitted in South Africa on April 10, 2002
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Wouter Basson (born July 6, 1950) is a South African cardiologist and former head of the country's secret chemical and biological warfare project, Project Coast, during the apartheid era. Nicknamed "Dr Death" for his alleged actions in apartheid South Africa, Basson was acquitted in 2002 of 67 charges, after having been suspended from his army post with full pay in 1999.

Among other charges, Basson was alleged to have supplied a "lethal triple cocktail of powerful muscle relaxants" which were used during Operation Dual (the systematic elimination of SWAPO prisoners of war and South African Defence Force (SADF) members who posed a threat to South African covert operations).

In November 2008, Basson was charged at a hearing of the Health Professions Council of South Africa with offences stemming from his time as an apartheid era "germ warfare expert". The hearing was postponed on an application submitted by the prosecution.

On the 30th of June 2010 the application by Wouter Basson to the South African High Court was rejected. The application to the High Court attempted to have the charges set aside as unlawfull, unreasonable and unfair. The Judge found that there was no evidence to suggest that the Council was influenced to be biased or prejudiced against the doctor.

Project Coast

Much of what Basson was working on is still secret. It is known that in 1981, when he was working as a personal physician to state president P. W. Botha, the country's Surgeon-General hired Basson to work for the 7th SAMHS Medical Battalion, the SADF's medical military unit. His job was to collect information about other countries' chemical and biological warfare capabilities under the name Project Coast. After his preliminary report, Basson became the head project officer and began to work on the country's chemical and biological weapons capability. He recruited about 200 researchers from around the world and received annual funds equivalent to $10 million. In 1982, Basson is alleged to have arranged the killing of 200 SWAPO prisoners.

Project Coast secretly researched chemical and biological warfare in violation of the international BTWC agreement. Basson created four front companies; Delta G Scientific Company; Roodeplaat Research Laboratories (RRL), Protechnik and Infadel, which in 1989 was split into two companies - D. John Truter Financial Consultants and Sefmed Information Services. The companies were used to officially distance the military from the project, to procure necessary chemicals and channel funds for the research.

According to later investigation, Basson had a free rein to do what he wanted. Delta G did most of the research, production and development of the chemical agents, while RRL developed chemical and biological pathogens and allegedly was involved with genetic engineering. Protechnik was a large nuclear, biological and chemical warfare plant developing defences against chemical weapons. Infadel dealt with those on a smaller scale and concentrated on financing and administration of other units and possibly channelling funds between military and research facilities. Many of the employees were not aware of what they were involved with.

In the 1980s Basson and the project were allegedly involved with attacks and assassinations against the members of anti-apartheid movements. African leaders in South Africa, Angola and Namibia also claimed that the more dangerous chemicals were used for crowd control in the country, although the government claimed otherwise and claimed that chemical weapons were used against South African troops. Basson provided the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB) with lethal chemicals to be used against prominent anti-apartheid activists. Basson continued to travel all over the world to gather information about chemical and biological warfare programs and set up other shell and paper companies as additional front companies, possibly for money laundering.

When F. W. de Klerk became president in 1990, he ordered the production of the chemicals to be stopped and the lethal agents destroyed. Basson concentrated on non-lethal chemical agents and chemicals the government had not banned. That included a large amount of ecstasy and Mandrax that were apparently exported or allegedly sold to the drug dealers in communities active in the anti-apartheid movement (see Basson brownies). Most of the stockpile disappeared afterwards. Scientists working on the project later stated that they believed it was to be used to create drug-laced tear gas.

In January 1992, Mozambique reported that a South African helicopter had attacked their soldiers by releasing an unknown lethal substance that led to four fatalities. Investigation by the United Nations, U.S. and the United Kingdom identified it as BZ nerve agent. USA and Britain began to pressure the South African government and in January 1993 Project Coast was wound down. Basson was officially retired and hired to dismantle the project, and allegedly profited when some of the South African front companies were privatised. Later government investigation found that there were large amounts of chemicals and agents missing.

TRC investigation

In 1993 the Office of Serious Economic Offences (OSEO) began to investigate Basson's business dealings in an as yet unheard of seven year forensic audit. In 1995 the South African government hired Basson to work for Transnet, a transportation and infrastructure company and possibly for other more secretive jobs. The USA and UK governments suspected that during his visits to Libya between 1993-1995, Basson might have sold chemical and biological weapons secrets. In 1995, the government of Nelson Mandela rehired Basson as an army surgeon, allegedly due to USA and UK pressure and possibly because the government wanted to keep an eye on him.

In 1996, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) began to investigate the SADF and determined that the army had probably used lethal toxins against ANC activists. Basson was connected to many of these attacks. In 1997, the CIA told the South African government that Basson intended to leave the country. When Basson was arrested in a sting operation in Pretoria, he had a large quantity of ecstasy pills and various documents with him. TRC began to investigate Project Coast which led them to suspect that Basson had sold his secrets to governments of countries like Libya and Iraq. In 1997 they asked the help of the Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa (NIZA) whose investigation report was included in the Truth Commission Files.

At the same time, the Office for Serious Economic Offences, The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the Gauteng Attorney-General's Special Investigation Team investigated Basson's affairs. Conflict of interest slowed down the Commission investigation but the TRC gained more information from OSEO. Basson was arrested in a sting operation in 1997 for the attempted sale and possession of 1000 ecstasy tablets. At the time, he had hundreds of secret Project Coast documents in his car. Basson appeared before the TRC on July 31, 1998 and gave evidence for 12 hours. His lawyers constantly interrupted the questioning with legal technicalities but the Commission determined that Basson had been the primary decision maker in Project Coast and should be put on trial.


Basson's trial began on October 4, 1999 in Pretoria. At the time, the South African media had dubbed him "Dr Death". Basson faced 67 charges, including drug possession, drug trafficking, fraud and embezzlement of a total of R36,000,000, 229 murders and conspiracy to murder and theft. Basson refused to seek amnesty from the Truth Commission. The prosecution presented 153 witnesses, but the case soon began to turn against them.

On October 11, 1999 Judge Willie Hartzenberg dismissed 6 important charges, including four charges of murder and possible involvement in 200 deaths in Namibia, because he stated that the South African court could not prosecute crimes committed in other countries. Basson was also included in the Namibian amnesty of 1989. Hartzenberg then adjourned the trial for two weeks. After 18 months of trial, he reduced the number of charges to 46.

In July 2001 Basson began to present his own evidence, speaking for 40 days. He stated that he had learned about the weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein, that he had indeed had free rein in the project and that he had exchanged information with foreign governments. However, technically all that was legal. The defence argued that Basson should have immunity for anything that had happened in Namibia.

On April 22, 2002 Judge Hartzenberg dismissed all the remaining charges against Basson and granted him amnesty. The trial had lasted 30 months. The state threatened to appeal the judgment due to legal inaccuracies, but the Supreme Court of Appeal refused to order a retrial in 2003.

After his release, Basson continued to travel all over the world as a guest speaker, and has founded his own private medical practice. In June 2005, a group of Swiss investigators questioned him about illegal trade in weapons and nuclear material and asked the South African government to stop cooperating with him.

Later that year the Constitutional Court, South Africa's highest court, overturned the judgment of the Supreme Court of Appeal. It ruled that crimes allegedly committed outside the country could be prosecuted in South Africa. Since then the National Prosecuting Authority has not instituted proceedings against Basson for crimes against humanity.


'Dr Death' acquitted in South Africa

BBC News

Thursday, 11 April, 2002

Dr Wouter Basson, the man who headed South Africa's apartheid-era germ warfare programme, has been acquitted on charges of murder, conspiracy, fraud and drug possession.

"I find the accused not guilty on all the charges," Judge Willie Hartzenberg said as the judgment was read out in the courtroom in Pretoria.

Dr Basson, dubbed "Dr Death" by the media for his alleged attempts to perfect killing, showed little reaction, just smiled briefly as he was found not guilty on 46 charges.

The ruling African National Congress condemned the verdict as "outrageously bad," said ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama.

"The justice system has let us down on this case," he added, describing the verdict as "a clear case of the protection of an individual who has killed people".

Plans to appeal

Prosecutors have accused Mr Hartzenberg of favouring Mr Basson throughout the trial, and the government plans to appeal the verdict before a panel of judges, Sipho Ngwema, a spokesman for the National Director of Public Prosecutions said.

The court was packed with white supporters of the 51-year-old cardiologist and they applauded the decision when the decision was read out.

"They (the prosecutors) had to prove beyond all doubt that the accused was guilty. That they did not do," Mr Hartzenberg added.

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

"To come to such a logical conclusion, to me, proves that South African courts are still good," Mr Viljoen said.

Truth Commission snubbed

In a trial lasting two and a half years, witnesses had testified that Project Coast, the programme Dr Basson headed, had tried to create poisons only lethal to blacks.

The doctor had refused to apply for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) - a stance seen by civil rights groups as proof he is unrepentant about his role under the white regime.

"For me the issue is not whether or not somebody gets found guilty, the real issue is whether or not the person is able to come to me and say, 'I did this and am very sorry'," said former anti-apartheid activist Reverend Frank Chikane.

Mr Chikane, now President Thabo Mbeki's chief of staff, was nearly killed by clothing allegedly poisoned by Project Coast.

Horrific experiments

Witnesses had testified to a catalogue of killing methods ranging from the grotesque to the horrific:

  • Project Coast sought to create "smart" poisons, which would only affect blacks, and hoarded enough cholera and anthrax to start epidemics.

  • Naked black men were tied to trees, smeared with a poisonous gel and left overnight to see if they would die. When the experiment failed, they were put to death with injections of muscle relaxants.

  • Weapon ideas included sugar laced with salmonella, cigarettes with anthrax, chocolates with botulism and whisky with herbicide.

'Following orders'

Dr Basson said at the trial he had only been following orders and portrayed himself as a scientist who had sought ways to combat potato blight and a hepatitis-A epidemic.

Responding to the charge that he had embezzled state funds, he said the government had practically provided him with a blank cheque for his work, which took him all over the world for clandestine meetings with agents.

He was arrested in 1997 on charges of selling ecstasy to a police informant - illegal drug production was one arm of Operation Coast's operations.

That arrest shed light on the germ warfare unit's work and Dr Basson finally went on trial in October 1999.


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