The death of the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in 1977 while in the custody of South African security police exposed one of the most disgraceful medical ethics breaches in the country's history, doctors have said. Writing in The Lancet today Dr David Nicholl and his co-signatories draw "strong parallels" between the Biko case and role of US doctors in Guantanamo Bay

Initially, the South African Justice Minister blamed Biko's death on a hunger strike. An inquest later revealed that he had died of extensive head injuries suffered during a brutal police interrogation. Gross inadequacies in the medical care Biko received from two doctors, Benjamin Tucker and Ivor Lang, were also exposed at the inquest but no action was taken against them.

Almost eight years later, after grassroots efforts by local doctors anxious to defend their profession's reputation, Tucker and Lang were tried by the South African Medical Council. Both were found guilty of improper and disgraceful conduct. Tucker was struck off and Lang was cautioned and reprimanded.

In their article the doctors say: "We suspect that the doctors in Guantanamo and elsewhere have made the same mistake as Tucker who, in 1991 expressing remorse and seeking reinstatement , said: 'I had gradually lost the fearless independence... and become too closely identified with the organs of the State, especially the police force'." Tucker also said he came to realise that a doctor's first responsibility was the well-being of his patient.