How do you eat an elephant? You do it bit by bit. In Afrikaans we say ‘happie per happie’. Baby steps at a time.”
This is how Dr Wouter Basson described his legal strategy after the partial success of an application to have six charges of unprofessional conduct dropped.
Basson is facing a professional conduct inquiry into his involvement in Project Coast, the bio-chemical weapons programme he ran for the apartheid government.
Speaking to The Sunday Independent on Friday afternoon, Basson said he was “chuffed” that two of the charges had been dropped in their entirety, and part of another charge had also been removed from the charge sheet.
During the course of the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) hearing in Pretoria, the pro-forma complainant conceded that there was no evidence to support charges one, three and part of charge two – which accused Basson of accepting appointment as project officer of the apartheid-era biochemical programme, Project Coast, and for testing chemical irritants and incapacitating substances.
However, Basson still stands accused of:
l Producing “drugs and tear-gases on a major scale”
l Weaponising “thousands of 120mm mortars with teargas” - some of which were supplied to Angola’s late rebel Jonas Sivimbi
l Providing “disorientation substances” for kidnapping exercises
l Supplying cyanide capsules to soldiers “for suicidal usage”
Arguing for the pro-forma complainant, advocate Salie Joubert said that by manufacturing these chemicals, Basson was “clearly in contravention of the ethical rules applicable to a medical practitioner”.
The charges are based on evidence which he gave during the criminal trail, which resulted in Basson’s acquittal, where he explained how he produced drugs such as cocaine and mandrax along with biological chemicals.
However, Basson has always maintained he has done nothing wrong, acting only on instruction as a soldier. His legal team had pointed to inconsistencies in the evidence of the two expert witnesses as sufficient reason to discharge the case, however the panel adjudicating the case dismissed this theory.
After previously admitting embarrassment over certain concessions made in the evidence of Dr David Benatar, the prosecution brought in a second expert witness – US-based medical ethics expert Professor Steven Miles. In Miles’s opinion, Basson acted unethically.
On Friday he told The Sunday Independent he did not believe Miles’s opinion would sink him.
“I listened to both opinions. Dr David Benatar gave a very balanced opinion. Professor Miles gave a political opinion. He was driven by self motivation and very little facts,” he said.
“If you look at the so called transgressions, it has nothing to do with medicine. This was a hell of a long time ago. Nobody remembers, and I’m not sure that anybody cares.”
Speaking from his practice in Cape Town, Basson sounded confident about his team’s rebuttal.
“We’ve planned this meticulously. We’ve finalised the process and I believe that by the end of February we will know what the strategy will be. The Basson-Cilliers road show will arrive in force,” he said referring to his counsel, advocate Jaap Cilliers SC.
When asked whether he would testify, Basson said: “Let the prosecution lose sleep over that one.
“Did I not testify in my court case? Why would I not testify now? I have nothing to hide. I have never run from anything. I don’t want to start now,” he added.
Basson again reiterated claims that the hearing, which could see him losing his medical licence, is politically motivated, saying the HPCSA “is not concerned with the welfare of the 10 000 patients I’ve treated.”
“The patients are terribly concerned about the fact that I might not be here to treat them. I can only assure them that I’ve done nothing in the medical field to be worried about. I can only assure them of my own behaviour.”
Meanwhile the HPCSA said it felt “vindicated” by the ruling.
Dr Kgosi Letlape, acting registrar and chief executive said it was important for South Africans to understand the role of medical ethics. He said the involvement of physicians in war time experiments was contrary to the ethical code which all doctors subscribe to. The case will resume on March 26.