Dr Death Wouter Basson found guilty


The man dubbed as South Africa’s “Dr Death”, Wouter Basson, the former head of the Apartheid chemical and biological warfare programme; has been convicted of unprofessional conduct by the country’s health council.

He had breached medical ethics when he was involved in the former apartheid government’s chemical and biological warfare programme, it ruled.

He was accused of supplying and producing kidnapping drugs, suicide pills and arming mortars with teargas.

South Africa became a democracy in 1994, ending white minority rule.

Thousands of people were killed during the fight to end apartheid rule.

‘No doctor-patient relationship’

The media dubbed him “Dr Death” when details of the secret programme emerged after minority rule ended; he was accused of producing illegal drugs and creating viruses that would only attack black people.

But Basson escaped a criminal conviction in 2002, arguing that he had acted on the orders of the former South African Defence Force (SADF) when he was involved in the chemical and biological warfare programme.

He is now a cardiologist in Cape Town.

‘It was not my responsibility, I was only executing order.’

The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) investigated whether he should be struck off the doctor’s roll for providing soldiers with cyanide capsules.

“The breaches of medical ethics amount to unprofessional conduct,” HPCSA chairman Jannie Hugo ruled, AFP news agency reports.

Basson’s lawyers had argued that he should be acquitted because the charges were not related to a doctor-patient relationship, but in his capacity as a soldier in the SADF, reports South Africa’s public broadcaster, SABC.

Basson is alleged to have provided security forces cyanide to help them commit suicide, “weaponising” thousands of 120mm mortar bombs with teargas, and providing drugs that would disorientate prisoners.

The HPCSA, which is a statutory body which maintains ethical standards in the medical profession, is due to pass sentence on Basson in February.

He had refused to apply for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which Nelson Mandela set up after he became president to draw a line under the conflict waged during apartheid.

Mr Mandela, who became the country’s first black president, died on 5 December at the age of 95.

He was widely praised for promoting reconciliation between black and white people.

Basson’s arguments were

  1. The alleged unprofessional conduct happened within the context of a specific war and conflict situation.
  2. He was under military instruction and supported by senior doctors.
  3. He acted as a soldier and not a doctor.
  4. He acted as a military doctor and ethics for military doctors are different.
  5. The people who received the substances were not his patients, meaning that there was no doctor-patient relationship.
  6. He was a young doctor and could not be held responsible for his actions.
  7. He was not aware of the codes and conventions that forbade chemical weapons and the use of medicine for non-therapeutic purposes.
  8. The medical ethics in 1980 were different from the ethics today.
  9. The chemical substances (made for use in cross-border kidnappings) were specifically designed to be non-lethal and to protect life.

What the HPCSA tribunal found

  1. That medical ethics are very important in times of war and conflict. Medical doctors have a unique position in society which impels them to stay true to ethical values of the profession. The committee rejected the contention that this factor should be considered in the context of whether the conduct of the respondent was unethical.
  2. The committee accepted the fact that the respondent acted on instructions of not only military commanders, but senior doctors. However, the committee’s view was that a medical doctor is responsible as an individual for his/her actions. Medical ethics require independence of thinking by each medical doctor. A doctor cannot simply rely on a military order to escape the consequences of his actions.
  3. While the respondent was a soldier at the time of performing the act, under consideration his conduct had to be assessed in light of the fact that he was probably ordered to perform the acts alleged because he was a doctor and the skills and experience in being a qualified doctor played a major role in his activities. The committee was of the opinion that if a doctor decided to use his medical knowledge and skills for actions contrary to medical ethics, then he should deregister from the council. The respondent could not rely on the contention that he acted as a soldier to the charge of breach of medical ethics.
  4. Medical ethics are similar inside and outside the military. Doctors in the military in South Africa are bound by the ethical rules generally applicable to doctors.
  5. The duties and roles of a doctor include the promotion of health in the general public and not only individual patients. The committee held that the respondent could not rely on the absence of doctor-patient relationship as an answer to the charge of unprofessional conduct.
  6. Dr Basson was fully accountable for his actions as he was a registered specialist physician in 1980, and the committee further regarded him not as a young follower, but a mature leader of the chemical warfare programme.
  7. It behoves a medical practitioner who ventures in the field of chemical weaponry to acquaint himself adequately on the terms and possible applicability of conventions and ethical rules created thereby. High standards of professional behaviour are required at all times from medical practitioners.
  8. Although the discipline of medical ethics was not prominent in the 1980s, the principles of putting the interests of the patient first were accepted and applied universally. No doctor can claim ignorance of the expected professional behaviour of a medical doctor.

The committee rejected the contention that ethical principles do not apply to the manufacture and use of these substances.


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